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What it's like to play big games in an empty arena? Siena knows

Siena played the final nine games of the 1989 basketball season in empty arenas because of a measles outbreak on campus. (Courtesy of Siena College)

The squeaks of sneakers echoed. Every bounce of the ball resounded. The typewriters of sportswriters click-clacked in the silence, and the phone on the scorers’ table let out a jarring ring every few minutes. Players had to keep in check their complaints about the refs; coaches had to keep their in-huddle voices low. There was no band to pump up the crowd, no fans to pump up the players. 

In 1989, Siena’s men’s basketball team played nine games in front of empty arenas, and despite a triumphant outcome, it was, to quote point guard Marc Brown, “awful.” 

Thursday night, the Golden State Warriors and the Brooklyn Nets will become the first NBA teams in the current pandemic to play a game without fans. It’s going to be a remarkably strange experience, but not an unprecedented one.

The story of Siena College’s bizarre late-season run to the 1989 NCAA tournament — a stretch that featured exactly zero fans in attendance, thanks to a measles outbreak on campus — has taken on new resonance in the last few days. As COVID-19 precautions and fears swirl ever higher, the possibility of playing games in empty arenas has become a reality. 

Reduce the number of people in an enclosed space, and you reduce the possibility of transmission, which is what the Big West and MAC announced they will do for their upcoming postseason basketball tournaments. 

Siena remains, to date, the best-known case of a team playing an extended series of games in front of empty houses. In early February 1989, an outbreak of measles swarmed over Siena’s campus. Measles is so contagious that if an infected person sneezes, nine of 10 unprotected, unvaccinated people in the immediate vicinity of that person will likely become infected. (It’s too early to determine a comparable reliable infection rate for the coronavirus, but it’s unlikely to reach that 90 percent threshold.) 

What made the Siena outbreak so significant was a question about the strength of vaccinations that had been administered to then-college-aged Americans. A college-aged student who caught measles at that later point in life faced much more dire health consequences than someone catching it in childhood. For that reason, health officials decided that fans couldn’t gather at the games in order to minimize the chances for infection. 

One of Siena’s players contracted measles; the rest were either cleared or already vaccinated. Siena was in first place in the conference and in pursuit of the school’s first-ever NCAA tournament bid, and head coach Mike Deane argued to school and health officials that cancelling the season was an unthinkable solution. As Siena vaccinated every single one of its students, Deane saved his team’s season, working out an arrangement for the final six regular-season games and the the North Atlantic Conference tournament. 

The solution: games would feature players, coaches, officials and media … and no one else. And not just home games … all games.

‘They could hear me screaming three stories below’

Each game, Siena’s bus would pull up to an empty stadium as security guards stood outside. Team officials would present guards with IDs and vaccination records of each player, and each player would pass through the security cordon one at a time. 

Siena’s first game under the new edict tipped off at Maine’s Alfond Arena, a 3,800-seat converted hockey rink. That presented Deane with his first new challenge.

“I’m an emotive coach, and I had to temper my style,” he said. “I have a squeaky voice. At that first game in Maine, the radio and television booth was three stories above the court and up this little ladder. People listening on radio and watching on TV said they could hear me screaming three stories below. There was no crowd to filter anything I was saying!” 

“It was awful,” recalled Brown, the team’s spark plug and best player. “It was like a scrimmage, a closed scrimmage. I could hear Mike Deane’s voice, I could hear sneakers screeching. It was a weird feeling until I got used to it.” 

Every element of the game required adjustment. Players had to be careful about what they said about the referees; there’s no such thing as “under your breath” in an empty arena. Deane had to modulate his voice in the huddle; if broadcast mics could pick up his screams, opposing teams could certainly hear his strategies if he wasn’t careful. 

“It was just basketball at its barest,” longtime Siena trainer Greg Dashnaw said. “It wouldn’t have surprised me to see peach baskets out there.”

But the Saints adapted, learning to play in silence. They won five of their final six regular-season games, losing only to Boston University in overtime, and by the time the North Atlantic Conference rolled around, Siena possessed a definite empty-court edge. 

“After the first couple games, [silence] was a definite advantage,” Deane said. “Everybody else was experiencing it for the first time. Certainly, for me, I had made the necessary adjustments. Other guys were coaching for the first time in that situation.”

Men on a silent mission

Even on the road in Maine, Siena played in front of empty stands. (Courtesy of Siena College)

The conference championship was held in the Hartford Civic Center, and that presented its own set of challenges. “Playing in some arena with three or four thousand empty seats is one thing,” Brown said. “But playing in the Hartford Civic Center, with 12 or 13,000 empty seats? That was tough.” 

Back on campus, students had gathered at what was then known as the Rathskeller — an on-campus bar and hangout — and cheered as if they were in the stands. Many had spotted their faces with markers or wore shirts with lines like “Siena 98.6, Measles 0.” It wasn’t quite the same as being at the game, but it was enough of a raucous scene that ESPN set up a camera during the conference championship and cut back and forth between the Rathskeller and the empty Hartford arena.

That game, a rematch between Siena and Boston University, began on a lighthearted note: ESPN had placed cardboard cutouts of figures like Albert Einstein and Dick Vitale in the stands as “fans.” But this was serious business; an NCAA tournament berth was at stake. Siena had missed out on a berth the previous season, falling in a first-round conference tourney upset to one of the worst teams in the country. That wouldn’t happen again. 

“It was our mission to get to the tournament,” Brown said. “Not being able to play on campus, having to change venues, it was tough, but it kind of motivated us, too.” 

The tension extended beyond the team. “The radio announcer for Siena must have felt like there were 10,000 people there,” said Pete Dougherty, then the beat reporter for the Albany Times-Union. “His voice was the only voice we could hear.” 

Siena and Boston University fought to the game’s final seconds. On the final possession, Siena’s Tom Huerter — now the father of the Atlanta Hawks’ Kevin Huerter — fired a long shot that just barely grazed the rim. Teammate Steve McCoy, posted up underneath the basket,  rebounded and drained the putback as time ran out. Final score: 68-67, Siena.

“It didn’t matter to them that there was nobody in the stands,” Dougherty said. “They celebrated like it was a packed house. They jumped all over each other.” 

They’d done it. They’d scored their first-ever NCAA bid, and they’d pulled it off in front of thousands of empty seats — and a rabid fanbase gathered around TVs all over campus. A month had passed between games that the students could attend, and so when the doors re-opened, Siena students flooded through them. 

The 13th-seeded Saints drew Stanford in the first round of that year’s tournament, in Greensboro, North Carolina. More than a dozen buses ran from New York to North Carolina, utterly flooding the city and overwhelming hotel rooms. And when Siena pulled off the upset, those fans stuck around, sleeping anywhere they could find an empty space. 

Siena ultimately fell to Minnesota in the next game, but that didn’t dim the shine of a remarkable, memorable season, and an unforgettable, unique run to the tournament. 

“We told our guys at the time, you just have to mentally prepare for no crowd noise. You have to make sure you’re ready to play, and you’re prepared to get yourself up,” Dashnaw said. “If you make a dunk, if you make a great play, you’re not going to hear any crowd noise.” 

“At least no one heckled us on the free throw line,” Deane said, adding, “Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again. That would be a shame.”

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