There may be more important things than sports. But sports are important.
I could hear that in Kevin Sarver’s voice, the sound of a broken sports heart.
I could see it in the photos on Sarver’s Twitter timeline, the loneliest photos you’ll ever want to see.
There’s the stacks of crates of bottled water and pop, still in boxes and under wraps.
There’s the shot of the basketball court at the CHI Health Center, the entire arena enveloped in darkness and solitude. Sarver tweets, “The current mood in the arena this morning is all of us.”
There’s the image of what would have been the NCAA-designed court for Omaha, framed by navy and red-orange borders.
And there’s the racks of official NCAA basketballs, all brand-new. The rows of official March Madness Powerade coolers, 36 in all. And the huge stack of team towels stamped with “Omaha 2020.”
It was the sad slide show, a what-might-have-been look at the party Sarver had planned 18 months to throw, the party that will never happen.
It was going to begin on Thursday, with the arrival of the guests. Kansas and Baylor, probably.
Maybe LSU. Maybe Kentucky’s blue bloods.
Eight teams in all were going to come to Omaha for the NCAA first- and second-round event.
That means eight buses would have driven into the mammoth convention center and dropped off the coaches and players, who would have walked about 100 feet to their locker rooms. All under cover.
Just one of many reasons KU coach Bill Self calls Omaha his “favorite” NCAA tourney site.
On Thursday the party would have started with eight team practices. The doors would be open for fans to attend for free, see the players up close, get a quick autograph.
Maybe even shake a hand.
Outside, the carnival tents would go up. Down at the Old Mattress Factory, the beer garden would be in full swing.
Across the street from the arena, the Capitol District — our mini Power and Light District — would welcome hoop fans into a world that wasn’t available to them during all the other NCAA tourneys here. Grab a slice of Lighthouse pizza, a drink from the trough, watch Creighton’s NCAA tourney game live on the giant screen in the courtyard.
The restaurants would fill up. The Kansas media mafia, led by Kansas City columnist Sam Mellinger, had reservations at the Drover for Thursday night. A KU media mafia tradition.
Then the party would start on Friday. Four games. An arena full of noise and passion. Big plays and unforgettable moments. Drama on the big stage.
And now, it’s all a memory we never had.
It’s been one week since our world started changing at warp speed. Sarver would find out soon.
On Tuesday this week, days after the NCAA canceled its postseason tournament, Sarver attended a funeral of a friend. But under Gov. Pete Ricketts’ order, no gathering could be more than 10 people. Including funerals.
Sarver excused himself so the immediate family could attend. And he went back to the CHI Health Center, to go through boxes of party favors that had to be sent back to the NCAA.
The shock still hasn’t worn off.
“To be honest, Wednesday and Thursday seem like a month ago,” Sarver said. “Things were happening so quickly.
“Based on the information we know, the decision was the right decision. But that still doesn’t make me feel better for the basketball players around the country. A lifetime experience was taken away from them.”
Sarver is an associate athletic director at Creighton, has been with the department for decades. He has a strong passion for hoops. And Omaha.
He has been the point man for all of our NCAA hoop events. He, MECA and an army of workers and volunteers have made it one of the best NCAA tourney sites in the country.
In this humble opinion, it’s the best.
Omaha shows well for this event. The media stay in the Hilton and merely walk across 10th Street to get into the biggest media work room of any NCAA site not named the Final Four.
Fans love the convenience, too, of an airport five minutes away and a wide selection of eateries and establishments and hotels from the Old Market down to TD Ameritrade Park.
The ghost town left behind means an estimated $5 million that won’t come to Omaha. Also, Sarver and Creighton — the official host of the event — might lose a small amount of money.
“There’s not a lot of expense there, because we had time to cancel a lot of it,” Sarver said. “For instance, the arena had to rent $25,000 worth of carpet (for the players and media areas). Were they allowed to cancel that? The NCAA understands this. They will reimburse us for anything we couldn’t cancel.
“We’re not going to be out a huge amount of money, but there’s going to be some. We fly in a stat crew, with hotels, and pay for airline tickets. Were they able to cancel those in time? There’s also a lot of supplies the NCAA says we need.”
The small consolation is there will be a next time. The NCAA has put four tournaments in the CHI Health Center since 2008, including the 2018 regional semifinals and final. They like Omaha, because a lot of what makes the College World Series work carries over to hoops.
“The people that work the event know what they’re doing, and they know how to deliver,” Sarver said.
Sarver said Omaha has made eight bids for the next round of available NCAA tourney dates, from 2023 through 2026. In other words, they’ve bid each year for the first round and the regional semifinals.
The hope is to get one of each in that four-year period.
“The NCAA was asked if the sites that were part of this year’s tournament will get preferential treatment in the next bid cycle,” Sarver said. “They didn’t answer that.
“But I feel really good. Because of how we handled the regional in 2018. You’ve got to believe with our history that we’ll get something.”
That won’t ease the pain from what might have been this week. That pain was evident in Sarver’s voice as he talked about the things that have to be sent back to the NCAA.
“Ice chests, directional signs, Powerade coolers, drink products,” Sarver said. “Basketballs. Each team was going to get a memento box, with hoodies and socks and March Madness stuff to give out to the players.
“They even sent us a scorebook. I asked them if they wanted it back. It’s empty.”
He let out a huge sigh.