Carlson: 'Weird atmosphere' for Utah Jazz in first trip to face OKC Thunder since March 11 pandemic pause
Quin Snyder walked into the visitors’ locker room Monday night and had a flashback.
Not a good one either.
“I won’t call it PTSD because it’s not that extreme,” he said, “but certainly, there’s memories.”
How could there not be?
The Jazz coach and his team spent nearly six hours in that locker room on March 11. There in a bare-bones space in the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena, they hunkered down after one of their own tested positive for the coronavirus. There, they became some of the first people in this country to experience a pandemic lockdown.
The NBA postponed the Jazz-Thunder game that night, then quickly decided to suspend its season indefinitely. The sports world reeled from the news that the pandemic was upon us, the American public started coming to grips with the magnitude of what was happening, and the Jazz found themselves at the epicenter of it all.
Monday night, Utah returned to the room where it happened.
The Jazz was the Thunder’s home-opener opponent, and after a back-and-forth game that neither team led by more than a dozen points, Utah won 110-109.
While much has changed since Utah’s last trip to Oklahoma City, including pandemic protocols and procedures that have altered setups and schedules, there were still memories of March.
“It seems like a lifetime since that happened,” Snyder said. “But … you can’t help but have some of the memories and some of those visions.”
When Snyder went into one of the locker room’s tiny offices, for example, he remembered the time he spent there that March evening. He was trying to figure out what came next. Rudy Gobert, who had tested positive, had remained at the team hotel, but the rest of the players, coaches and support staff had been around the Jazz big man.
Would they get tested?
What about getting home?
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What if they had to stay the night in OKC?
Snyder spent time on the phone with people from the city, the state and the league, people in Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City and New York City. Even though there were lots of folks working to get answers for the Jazz, there was worry and fear.
The people in that locker room had to lean largely on each other.
That’s a top-of-the-head memory for Snyder.
“I think the biggest one really is just the fact that we went through it together,” he said. “It was a very unique situation, and I think unique for our team in a different way than others because of the circumstances.”
That was a memorable night for everyone at The Peake.
Mark Daigneault, now the Thunder head coach, was an OKC assistant last season. Down the back hallway in the Thunder locker room, there was confusion and uncertainty, too. Coaches and players had known the coronavirus was picking up steam.
“That game was the first domino,” Daigneault said, “and a lot of other things got knocked over as a result of that.”
But a few hours after the game was postponed and the Thunder was given the all clear to head home — they would be tested the next day — Daigneault still had no idea of how large the pandemic would loom.
“I mean, of course not,” he said. “I don’t think anybody did.”
It might’ve been a little clearer to the folks stuck in the visitors’ locker room. Eventually, they were joined by medical professionals who tested each of them.
In the wee hours of the morning, the Jazz boarded buses and left the arena.
Two hundred and ninety-two days later, Utah returned to OKC.
“When we walked into the hotel,” Snyder said, “I tried to remember what it felt like when we were playing in the playoffs as opposed to when we were playing here last spring.”
He smiled a bit.
“You can’t help but remember that.”
The Jazz stayed again at 21c Museum Hotel. For several years, it has been Utah’s hotel of choice when it comes to Oklahoma City, but the memories of last spring were down every corridor, behind every door.
“It’s a little bit of a weird atmosphere,” Gobert said.
Donovan Mitchell said, “I had the same room, believe it or not.”
The Jazz star who tested positive last March but hit the game winner Monday chuckled.
“It’s still the same year from all that, and you know, it feels like it was forever ago,” he said. “We’re still going through things, and we’ve seen a lot happening this whole time as a league, as a country, as a world.”
Quin Snyder believes that perspective changed how he and his Jazz viewed their return trip to The Peake. Even though some of their memories weren’t good, Snyder is happy to be back in any arena, even the one in OKC.
“Because it means we’re playing,” he said. “And you know, there’s so many people right now that aren’t working.
“Nobody’s feeling sorry for themselves when you look back. There’s so many more challenging things that have happened since then, but it certainly is an evening that you remember for a long time.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.