The start of the college basketball season has offered a forceful reminder that the world is still very much in the grips of a pandemic. Positive tests have racked up and multiple games have been canceled every day, all while the powers that be continue to parade a group of unpaid college students city-to-city to keep the money rolling in. The players want to play and the games have been exciting, but it’s hard to fight off just how unsettling this season feels as the virus has claimed nearly as many lives as 9-11 each day in recent weeks.
If it feels unnerving to immerse yourself in this season as a fan, it must be even weirder to try to lead a team through it as a head coach. Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner had an idea about how to keep spirits high. It might be the most surreal moment of a season that feels like a bad dream.
Before Georgia Tech faced Nebraska on Wednesday, Pastner presented his team with a Covid piñata and told them to smash it. Yes, the video of this is exactly as Lynchian as it sounds.
Candy spills out, the players celebrate, and the Yellow Jackets go on to beat the Cornhuskers, 75-64, to improve to 2-2 on the season. All of this is actually happening.
It’s worth mentioning that Georgia Tech was having an incredibly odd season even before Pastner brought a Covid piñata into existence. The Yellow Jackets lost their season-opener to in-state rival Georgia Southern in four overtimes, then lost to low-major Mercer before rebounding to shock John Calipari and Kentucky. These would be wild ups-and-downs for a middling ACC program without playing in a pandemic or filling an image of a deadly virus with Laffy Taffy. Leave it to Pastner to push the vibes to an illogical extreme.
Diehard college hoops fans have long noticed that Pastner is a bit a strange dude. Mike Rutherford of Card Chronicle once put together a quiz pitting Pastner quotes vs. quotes from Michael Scott of The Office, which is one of the greatest blog posts ever written. Bringing a Covid piñata to the locker room to hype up the team sounds exactly like something Michael Scott would do.
It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so deeply sad that this virus continues to cause death and destruction around the world. College basketball has become a distraction from the nightmare we wake up to every day. The athletes are our entertainment, putting not just themselves at risk for the virus but also every person they interact with as they travel to new cities each week. The powers that be canceled March Madness just as the virus was starting to spread throughout the country. Now it’s at its peak, but a combination of boredom, greed, and morbid resignation has led us to believe the show must go on.
College basketball players get their ‘cost of attendance’ stipend and the opportunity to take credit hours without paying the exorbitant higher education costs the rest of us do. If it means they have to live in a hotel or be kept away from their families during the holidays, so be it. People at the top of the chain make money hand over fist while athletes and workers take on the greatest risk without much compensation. This is how America works in 2020. College basketball has been a dirty sport from very start of its existence, and now it’s never felt dirtier.
It’s the job of the coaches to keep their team focused through it all so they could have the honor of winning something like the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic. This week gave us 2,500 deaths per day and a coach who filled a virus piñata with candy. More death and more motivational tactics await us in the weeks ahead, at least until someone has the good sense to finally question why we’re still doing this.
Until then, the show goes on. Georgia Tech is about to enter ACC play. Pastner has to keep them focused, somehow.