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'Maybe they do all this stuff before the game': Why Barbara DeMaio's first Thunder game is a night she won't forget

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Thunder fans leave after Wednesday's scheduled game against the Utah Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena was postponed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]
Thunder fans leave after Wednesday's scheduled game against the Utah Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena was postponed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

The large blue pin clipped to Barbara DeMaio’s shirt announced the occasion: “MY 1ST GAME!”

An illustration of Rumble the Bison hovered over the words, and an OKC Thunder logo sat below. Wednesday did, indeed, mark DeMaio’s first trip to Chesapeake Energy Arena to see the Thunder play. But she wouldn’t actually be watching any basketball that night.

The postponement of the Thunder’s home game against the Jazz sent shock waves across the nation. An hour after the game was scheduled to tip-off, the NBA confirmed that a Jazz player had tested preliminarily positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus.

The NBA suspended its season indefinitely. The MLB, NHL and MLS followed suit. The NCAA canceled its championship tournaments. The Masters golf tournament was postponed, the Boston marathon rescheduled.

In the calm before the storm, DeMaio sat in her seat on the 100 level, holding up her bulging satchel.

“I do have a thing of hand sanitizer in my purse,” she said.

DeMaio, 67, knew that because of her age, she was considered at risk to develop serious symptoms from COVID-19. She was concerned enough to bring hand sanitizer but not enough to pass on the ticket her friend offered her.

After starting lineup introductions, the Storm Chasers, the Thunder’s in-game entertainment group, took the court for a T-shirt toss. The Raindrops, a kids dance team, performed. Then Frankie J, who was scheduled to sing at halftime, emerged.

DeMaio checked her watch. It was a half an hour after the scheduled tip-off time.

“I just couldn't figure out what was going on,” she said. “I thought, well maybe they do all this stuff before the game — I don't know, I've never been to an NBA game before. I lived in Italy for 16 years; I don't know what NBA games are like.”


Longtime season ticket member Don Timberlake, 78, had seen enough Thunder pregames to realize something was wrong when the players didn’t take the floor after introductions. His seats are behind press row, so he tapped a reporter on the shoulder and asked what was going on. None of the writers had any more information than he did.

NBA commissioner Adams Silver revealed on TNT the next day what was going on behind the scenes. He got word from the league office, just before tip-off, that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested presumptive positive for COVID-19. He spoke to Thunder chairman Clay Bennett, general manager Sam Presti and representatives from the Jazz, and they all agreed.

“This should not, of course, be a business decision,” Silver said on TNT. “We should be listening to the public health experts, Oklahoma City and the team doctors.”

After Frankie J wrapped up his performance the announcement came: The game was postponed for “unforeseen circumstances.”

DeMaio snapped a photo of the jumbotron, which echoed that message.

At first, she thought it was a joke. That they’d send the players out momentarily.

“Then it was real,” DeMaio said. “I have to say, everybody was very orderly. Everybody filed out like they're supposed to, and people were very nice. It was done very professionally, but still it was disappointing.”

Timberlake left the arena with the masses, but a couple sections over, DeMaio waited out the crowd. She had back surgery in January, which had slowed her down.

DeMaio heard the explanation for postponement on the radio during the car ride home. Timberlake saw it on television.

Soon after, the media relayed good news from the Oklahoma State Department of health: “Those in attendance at the game are not at risk.”

Timberlake, although considered at-risk due to his age, said he was never really concerned. His seats, although close to the floor, weren’t within six feet of any of the players. He's confident that he'll be compensated for his tickets, should the game not be rescheduled.

The Thunder said in an email to game attendees that it would communicate directly with those who bought tickets through the team. It also provided a number to call for fans who purchased tickets through Ticketmaster, an authorized seller of Thunder tickets.

“But how about the ones who bought them outside the arena,” Timberlake said, “or bought through the ticket exchange, or bought them from an individual. I don’t know how those are ever going to be reconciled.”


DeMaio is still carrying around that bottle of hand sanitizer in her bag, and she’s using it more often now.

“I washed my hands all the time,” DeMaio said, “but I certainly didn't think about using my hand sanitizer after I touched the handrail (at the ‘Peake), and I should have. We all should.”

She’s learned from her friends in Italy, who she met during her international opera career, how serious the epidemic can get. Italy enacted a nation-wide quarantine last week.

One of DeMaio’s friends is scared to leave the house because her father has a weakened immune system, and she doesn’t want to carry the coronavirus back in with her. Another, former casting director and agent Luca Targetti, died this week after testing positive for COVID-19.

“I'm glad everybody's taking it seriously,” DeMaio said.

So, no, DeMaio didn’t see her first Thunder game. But the large blue pin she received Wednesday has become a memento from a historic event in American sports. The back even identifies the game.

“Who knows,” DeMaio joked, “maybe I’ll sell it on eBay someday.”

Related Photos
<strong>Barbara DeMaio</strong> [James Michael Avance photo]

Barbara DeMaio [James Michael Avance photo]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-509d7522bbdc7ea7b90b98e3e139d0f9.jpg" alt="Photo - Barbara DeMaio [James Michael Avance photo]" title=" Barbara DeMaio [James Michael Avance photo]"><figcaption> Barbara DeMaio [James Michael Avance photo]</figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-6ca96a7829c64c9c36f286bbfb6c2f88.jpg" alt="Photo - Thunder fans leave after Wednesday's scheduled game against the Utah Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena was postponed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] " title=" Thunder fans leave after Wednesday's scheduled game against the Utah Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena was postponed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Thunder fans leave after Wednesday's scheduled game against the Utah Jazz at Chesapeake Energy Arena was postponed. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Maddie Lee

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