Pandemic Games

The line was hushed, nearly still.

Library and card catalogue-ish.

Socially distanced, too, save those huddled in familial pairs.

Opposite the Hive’s industrial row of doors, where many Yellow Jacket faithful used to congregate, a podium stood sentry.

A sober needle, its perch dressed with pen and paper.

Near its reach, a volunteer waited, temperature gun in hand — a light saber to remind that contagion was ever-looming.

Beep, it went — all clear.

Sign in, she said. Name and number.

Shock.

It was Nov. 19, 2020, and the scene — formerly known as the gate of a volleyball match between Nash Central and Roanoke Rapids — was a run of cold calculus.

Welcome, all, to the Pandemic Games.

•••

At home one night, shortly before my visit to the Rod Serling-inspired breezeway on Hamilton Street, a text conversation.

Duriel Smith.

It was follow-up to a podcast idea, and for a spell, we went back and forth on the latest interview subject to commit, production time, and oddly, my need for a drone — before calling it a night.

The budget was shaping up, though.

Weldon. Northwest Collegiate.

Christmas, 2018.

Because if you can’t hoop during the holidays, you should most definitely podcast about hoop during the holidays.

In two weeks’ time, the plan was in bigger motion.

A poster, check.

Audio samples, check.

Video, check.

Testing, testing, testing.

Nerves.

It was Dec. 2, 2020, and a hint of optimism — formerly known as a full slate of basketball games on pick-a-night-in-the-Valley — was caution in the wind, daring to replace it.

Welcome, all, to the Pandemic Games.

•••

Interstate-wide, room to roam.

Crash-pads intact.

Viking Country, forever ready.

That’s what the south baseline looked like at Halifax Academy a few weeks later, when I took up as station-agent for their varsity hoops home-opener.

The women lost.

Men, too.

But that wasn’t the takeaway — not even close.

For that moment happened between games, when the school’s athletic director, Teresa Long, asked me a question.

How long, she wondered, do you think we’ll play?

Immediately, my brain developed two answers — one, my own, and the other, a run by the ghost of George Carlin.

In response, I mentioned Christmas, wondering how on earth families would treat the Governor’s latest health and safety recommendations.

George, however — surly and suffering any and all manner of COVID-19 fatigue — drafted a smart-mouthed reply.

“Ask her what time it is right now,” he whispered — er, yelled.

Burnout.

It was Dec. 11, 2020, and snarky, snappish apparitions — formerly known as a friendly disposition — were suddenly resident to my thinking.

Welcome, all, to the Pandemic Games.

•••

Post-Santa, the show came together with haste — thanks to the kindness of a great many people.

Antonio Richardson. Donnell Handsome.

Andre Stewart.

Jay Bell. Tay Solomon.

Duriel Smith, Joshua Norman, and the Lynch Family — Coach James and his son, Jalen.

Rich in words, the group was happy to relive a moment that needed it, giving substance to a wonderful peak in Valley sports history.

We are, after all, but our story.

Post-production, however, was a different bag.

There were mic problems.

Platform problems.

Channel EQ and compression problems, track erasure problems, volume-is-completely-different-from-loud-problems, writing on the page problems and by release day, time-is-the-mother-of-all-enemy problems.

I may or may not have sworn.

Somehow, though, deadline was made — and again the following day, with time enough to spare the playoff clash between Ohio State and Clemson.

Ragged.

It was Jan. 1, and Father Time — formerly known as someone taken for granted, consequences be damned — was asking me how wisely I spent mine.

Welcome, all, to the Pandemic Games.

•••

Stay home.

Such was the directive on Wednesday by N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen, who appeared at the side of Gov. Roy Cooper to, once again, deliver the latest COVID-19 news to the state.

Eighty-four counties in the red.

Stay home.

Ninety-six counties pushing red.

Stay home.

Deep, deep sigh.

As the presser turned into evening, and later, this piece to midnight oil, I wanted it to tie off in Washington — engulfed earlier in the day by chaos — as a loop around the greater good, sports and our need to be better.

But no — something else persisted.

Stay home.

So, back we tread to Cohen’s public safety call, and a notion that maybe, just maybe, student-athletes across the Old North State shouldn’t be barreling by the busload to compete on a cherry-red map.

At least not right now, anyway.

Headache.

Today is Jan. 8, and the spirit of critical mass — formerly known as this too shall pass, just you wait — is beaming at us from every digital dot we can cradle, spelling out a strengthening darkness few of us ever thought possible.

Welcome, all, to the Pandemic Games.