Black Basketball Coaches Talk About How COVID is Affecting Them

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Coach Mark Montgomery and Corry Irvin

By J. Coyden Palmer

Two African-American basketball coaches in Illinois recently talked about how COVID-19 is affecting their programs. The women’s basketball team at St. Xavier University has temporarily shut down all basketball-related activities after someone associated with the program tested positive for COVID-19. The news broke exclusively on Monday, October 19, on the “What’s Up Cuz” podcast, which is done in conjunction with the Chicago Crusader every Monday evening on the SportsZone Chicago app.

St. Xavier Head Coach Corry Irvin was a guest on the show and said the program had implemented a lot of safety precautions but still had a positive test.

“I think people need to know just how serious of an issue this virus is,” Irvin said. “We were taking some extreme measures, and we still had a positive test.”

St. Xavier was scheduled to play their first game on October 31. Irvin said that game has been postponed and that the team will not be conducting any activities until October 31. She added that this season she expects that teams across the country will need to be flexible.

“We’ve been very careful. It just happens,” Irvin said. “We’re going to take a step back.”

This is Irvin’s second season at the helm after a successful high school coaching career at Whitney Young High School, where she won several state titles. Irvin said she was really looking forward to this year after her first season was cut short, when COVID-19 shut down college athletes right around playoff time. She recalled what happened in the spring, as her team was preparing for the NAIA National Championships when news broke that the tournament was being postponed.

“I was really confident going into Nationals,” Irvin said. “We were there in Nebraska and walking onto the court when the game was canceled. There was so much shock. I couldn’t even have the conversation with our players. I had to have our athletic director go in and talk to the players. When we first got back into the locker room, I didn’t know what to say. We prepare speeches for if you win or lose a game. I didn’t have anything.”

Irvin said there were a lot of tears and not much conversation until the team got safely back to their hotel. COVID-19 also canceled the team’s end of the season banquet, which was scheduled to take place this fall. But now, even that is in jeopardy. Irvin said she felt really bad for her seniors, who graduated with a taste of not knowing what they could have accomplished. The team was 29-4 when the season stopped.

Up until the time they were shut down earlier this week, Irvin said the team was wearing masks everywhere they went. The team was even considering playing their games while wearing a mask. Other precautions being taken by the team included: The team was staying in a pod to themselves at the University. They were not eating in the school cafeteria and were getting all meals to go. Players were not being allowed to go home, including ones who are from Chicago. The locker room and team facilities were being cleaned with a fogger on a daily basis. The team was also being screened twice a day.

“I mean all this stuff we were doing, and we still got shut down,” Irvin said. “That’s how serious this is.”

For Northern Illinois University men’s Head Coach Mark Montgomery, who also appeared on the podcast, the story is similar. His team started preparing for their season in the MAC conference a few weeks ago, but he still has concerns as does everyone else. Montgomery, whose team won the MAC Western Division regular season title last year, said his players are having a tough time adjusting to college life with the campus mostly closed and wants people to understand these are young adults who are not getting the traditional college experience and who are working hard at being student-athletes. Like Irvin, his team got the news last spring the season was over right before they were going to participate in a post-season tournament

“We were at the MAC tournament and we had an 8:00 a.m. shootaround and were getting ready for our pregame meal, and our athletic director came in and said, ‘It looks like they are going to shut us down.’ Our guys wanted to play,” Montgomery said. “Within 15 minutes, some of the major conferences shut down, and we had to call some of our guys back from their hotel rooms. Some of our guys were already dressed and preparing to leave for the game. I felt sorry for our guys. At that point, you’re not a coach anymore, you are more of a counselor. You are just trying to calm them down and get them home safe. It was silence on the bus and a tough moment for all of us.”

Montgomery and the Huskies are taking many precautions as they prepare for the upcoming season. But they also know it could end at any time, perhaps even before a single game is played. Montgomery said scheduling games this year has been the biggest challenge due to travel restrictions and schools being conscious of their budgets.

“Money matters. I wanted to play all Illinois schools this year, because we are all operating under the same protocols,” he said. “If you go out of state, you have to worry about quarantining when you get back. You have to have a lot of patience.”

As one of Chicago’s Black newspapers with a citywide distribution, our mission is to provide readers with factual news and in-depth coverage of its impact in the Black community. The Rona Reports are stories of Black resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This Rona Report is made possible by the Chicago COVID-19 Journalism Fund, which is a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

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