It was tough to watch the BYU men's basketball team host No. 1-ranked Gonzaga on Monday night and not compare the atmosphere to the contest that took place nearly a year ago between the Cougars and the Bulldogs.
Even the ESPN commentators — neither of whom were in the building on Monday — repeatedly talked about what a special night it was to be at the Marriott Center in Provo on Feb. 20, 2020, when 19,000 spectators watched BYU upset then-No. 2-ranked Gonzaga, 91-78. The scene on the court of hundreds of fans celebrating with the Cougars was an indelible memory for everyone who was there.
Fast forward nearly 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic and this year there were only 200 fans in attendance for the big showdown. Even their best efforts to energize the home team during the 82-71 BYU loss were inevitably drowned out by the silence from the vast number of empty seats.
I'm not going to speculate on whether a normal crowd would have made a difference or bemoan how sad it is that we can't enjoy these games in the ways we would like to.
While those are valid perspectives, I got thinking about things from the point of view of a college basketball team.
I saw a lot of correlations between what happened to the Cougars against the powerful Bulldogs on Monday and what has happened to all of us in the last year:
1. It was a rough start
BYU quickly found itself down 15-2 in the game, thanks to poor initial performance on both ends of the court.
Similarly, I think we all found ourselves reeling with the early viral outbreaks and pandemic lockdowns.
2. We started figuring things out
On the court, the Cougars were able to hold their own for much of the rest of the first half and early in the second half.
From a world perspective, we started learning about the virus and ways to limit its spread.
3. Things really fell apart
With more than 14 minutes left in the game, the Cougars had a good look from beyond the arc to cut Gonzaga's lead to five. Instead, the Bulldogs went on 22-8 run to put the game away.
It reminded me of the huge surge we saw in the late fall/early winter as seasonal susceptibility and failure to take necessary precautions resulted in skyrocketing virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
4. Getting back on track
The home team did close out the game nicely and at least put itself in position to make Gonzaga fans a tiny bit nervous, although it proved to be too little, too late.
As a society, we have seen some improvements in recent weeks with vaccinations and greater efforts to limit COVID-19 outbreaks.
Sports often provides a microcosm perspective on life in general, so these correlations really aren't that surprising.
But here's I think is the biggest takeaway from this exercise:
Losing can be a powerful teacher.
BYU head coach Mark Pope always talks after a loss about how he's going to break down what happened and use that information to build up his team. I think that is a message that resonates with anyone who has ever played or coached in any sport.
Are we doing that same thing as we face the battles of 2020 and 2021?
No team wants to lose. No civilization wants to deal with a pandemic.
But, as even a newborn baby learns, we definitely don't always get what we want.
Instead we have to embrace the challenges to learn as much as we can about ourselves and each other so we can be better.
Pope wants his team tested. He told reporters after Monday's game that if they had any sway with a top program that might be willing to play his BYU squad, he wanted to make it happen.
"We'll travel," he said with a grin.
I don't know if we need to seek tests in life that same way because the tests will come no matter what. The COVID-19 pandemic may be the most universally disruptive challenge we have faced since the 1940s but it's still just another obstacle to be faced and overcome.
Even though a lot of attention focuses on fear and negativity, I do see some tremendous positives and lessons from the "losses" of the pandemic:
- We recognize we have greater flexibility and resiliency.
- Innovations in our medical and scientific communities have had enormous impacts. (Thanks to their efforts, Utah, for example, would have to have around 15 times more COVID-19 deaths than it has had so far to reach the population-adjusted numbers from the 1918 pandemic).
- Personal interaction and connection is incredibly important.
- We are definitely NOT even close to ready for the Zombie Apocalypse or any other dystopian experience (we can't even consistently get something as simple as masks right, for goodness sake!).
I'm sure there are a lot of other things we can build on, things I hope you are thinking about as you read my list.
Just as I hope the BYU men's basketball team focuses on how it can grow from its defeat at the hands of Gonzaga, I hope we all focus on how we can grow from the challenges of today.