The word surreal can be overused in sports at times. But that wasn’t the case this week during the Nebraska boys state basketball tournament.
So much about the tournament looked and sounded different after most fans were shut out from attending the games because of a global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. And for about 24 hours, there were questions whether the tournament would go on long enough to crown champions.
On Friday evening, you could add another scene to the list of ways this tournament was surreal, when highlights from the state tournament were shown on ESPN’s "SportsCenter," the sports network's news and highlights show.
But a sports channel needs sports content, and right now there’s no NBA, college basketball, NHL and so much more.
Linda Cohn, an ESPN anchor who has narrated the highlights from many of the greatest games and athletes in the world during a long career, was doing the same thing for a state semifinal game in Nebraska’s second-largest division.
“(The tournament) would go on as scheduled, just without spectators,” said Cohn on ESPN. “Fans can see it online. And we’ve got some highlights for you. Semifinals, Class B, (Omaha) Roncalli and Scottsbluff. Fourth quarter, Roncalli down two, Jack Dotzler, turnaround J, Roncalli ties the game at 41.”
Then on Saturday, stunning may be the description for what occurred in the Class A championship, when Bellevue West ended the game on a 16-0 run to beat Millard North 64-62.
There isn’t much left for college and professional sports, and fewer than 10 states are playing high school sports right now.
According to USA Today, Montana on Friday became the only state holding high school athletics events without restrictions on fan attendance. Thirty states had canceled or postponed high school competition, and seven states were holding competition but limiting the number of spectators.
Nobody wishes it was this way, when hundreds of sporting events all over the world were postponed or canceled. But it was still pretty cool for a Dotzler, a senior at Omaha Roncalli, to hear “Dotzler, turnaround J" on "SportsCenter."
“Growing up, I used to watch 'SportsCenter' in the morning before going to school when I was getting ready,” said Dotzler on Saturday afternoon, after Roncalli finished as state runner-up, losing to Omaha Skutt in the title game. “To be on that, it’s a unique opportunity, and not many people get to experience that. Especially with nothing else going on, why not have more high school stuff on TV?”
And this wasn’t just a short mention that the high school games were still going on in Lincoln. ESPN also showed highlights from the Class A semifinal game between Bellevue West and Omaha Westside. During at least one of the ESPN shows, the Nebraska tournament highlights lasted about 1½ minutes.
After the highlights, they even had a graphic box with the final score on the screen. On one of the shows, it even showed that Omaha Roncalli senior Shane Orr was the leading scorer with 22 points. It also showed Orr making a layup.
On the second-to-last organized basketball game Orr would play he was on “SportsCenter.” And now the video is on YouTube, with more than 8,000 views already.
“It was pretty surreal,” said Orr on Saturday. “I never thought I’d be on ESPN.”
Some of the Omaha Roncalli players learned they had made the big-time while returning to Omaha on Friday.
“We were coming back and one of our guys said, ‘I think they’re showing us on "SportsCenter,"'" Dotzler said. “I was kind of like, ‘What in the world.' Us, in tiny Nebraska. Why are they showing us? Well, I guess it’s because they didn’t have anything else to cover. That’s pretty cool."
ESPN also showed highlights from the first Class A game on Friday.
“Third quarter, Bellevue West, (Chucky) Hepburn draining a three,” Cohn said. “I think this is going to start a trend, which is fine. I think in Iowa also they’re holding their tournament. Bellevue West would go on to win 89 to 70.”
With the crowd limited to immediate family, more of the tournament games were broadcast on TV and online, with people watching at home, and also in the sports bars near Pinnacle Bank Arena.
After the news came out on Wednesday that most fans wouldn’t be able to attend, News Channel Nebraska, a statewide TV network, made quick arrangements to go from broadcasting its previously planned 12 games on Thursday and Friday to 36 games in two days. Those games were also provided for free online by the NFHS Network.
It was a massive undertaking for News Channel Nebraska in less than 24 hours.
“It was amazing how everybody involved rallied behind the cause to help make it possible for Nebraskans to still see that state tournament,” said Brandon Aksamit, a director for News Channel Nebraska.
The 36 games on Thursday and Friday had more than 1.4 million online views. The biggest game for online views was the Millard North-Omaha South semifinal game, which had 197,033 views.
News Channel Nebraska has got a lot of reaction for rushing to get the games on TV.
“People have been Facebook messaging us and tagging us in pictures of how they are watching from home with four different televisions, and have all four games going,” Aksamit said. “Then ESPN picked up our highlights and were playing them on 'SportsCenter' last night, which was completely surreal.”
And just like normal, the six championship games on Saturday were broadcast on TV across Nebraska on NET. That broadcast could also be seen online for free.
Gavin Felix, a producer for NET, says normally the online broadcast of the games are viewed by more than 10,000 people. And for some games more than 15,000 watch on TV.
The online viewership for the title games won’t be known until next week, but there should be a much larger audience.
“This is just going to blow them out of the water,” Felix said.
NET had a crew of about 40 people to produce the broadcast for the finals. What was it like to be producing one of the only sports broadcasts in the United States on Saturday?
“It’s a little eerie,” Felix said. “You have a little more pressure on you, I think, because there is obviously more eyes watching. For NET, we’re a public service to the state, so that’s the primary goal for Nebraska. But I think now with everything that’s happened over the last few days, we’ve almost become a national public service.”
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