BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Early this week, Reggie Witherspoon was talking with a fellow college basketball coach, who lamented the fact that his team had suffered three positive COVID-19 tests this season.
Witherspoon, the men’s coach at Canisius College, stared into the phone, smiled and offered his condolences.
“I didn’t tell him how many we’ve had,” Witherspoon said Thursday, “because I didn’t want to make him feel worse.”
Witherspoon estimates that his program has been interrupted “10 or 11 times” by pandemic-related pauses since the Griffs returned to campus last year. You lose track of the exact number. The Canisius season seems like one long pause, stretching back to the first one in October.
The Griffs recently went 40 days between games. Talk about wandering through a basketball desert. After winning two home games on Jan. 1-2, the program was shut down when a “Tier 1” staff member tested positive. That’s a group that includes coaches, players, trainers and student managers.
That meant a 14-day pause. The Griffs were scheduled to host Quinnipiac at the Koessler Center on Jan. 30-31, but those games were postponed by a positive test. That two-game set was shifted to Quinnipiac, where Canisius won twice last weekend.
Before those games, Canisius was one of only six Division I men’s squads — out of 340 — to have played six or fewer games this season. They’re 5-3 entering Friday’s game at Fairfield, riding one of the oddest four-game winning streaks imaginable.
“We haven’t lost since 2020,” Witherspoon joked.
He can joke now, but it’s been a long, confounding journey. The only thing comparable is his first season as a D-I head coach, when he took over the UB program in December of 1999 after the university fired Tim Cohane in the midst of a scandal.
“That probably helped me keep it in perspective a little bit,” he said. “Most people have forgotten that. This is crazy.”
The insanity began the week after last season ended, when Canisius learned that two referees who had worked their MAAC Tournament game on March 10 in Atlantic City had tested positive for the coronavirus, resulting in a 14-day quarantine.
In September, the Griffs’ Scott Hitchon was stabbed in the leg by a UB player, Malik Zachery, during a pickup game in North Tonawanda. Hitchon was treated at a hospital and released. Zachery was suspended by UB and later charged with assault.
The offseason was unusual, to say the least, with Covid fears and social distancing and Zoom meetings. From the start, Witherspoon urged his players to wash their hands, social distance, wear a mask. Be extra vigilant to stay safe for the team.
“I said, ‘If somebody tests positive in here, all of us are going in quarantine for 14 days’,’” Witherspoon recalled. “Some had already been in quarantine, coming from other countries. They knew what it was like and they did not want to go back there.”
Then, on Oct. 20, Witherspoon tested positive for the virus. He was stunned. He stayed home, never took chances, wore a mask. He was told not to tell his team who had tested, because there were likely to be more positives. He told them anyway.
“They had this look. I was the guy who had been telling them, do this and don’t do that. But I didn’t say it would be their fault. So I’m almost thankful I was the first to get it, because there’s shame when guys test positive. They openly express it.”
Witherspoon said he was asymptomatic and tested negative a week later. There have been around a dozen positive tests within the program since then — including him a second time. But only two people, a player and a grad assistant, had any symptoms.
He says the Griffs have been as careful as possible. There’s an element of luck involved. The virus has affected every program in the country, some more than others. Iona, in Rick Pitino’s first season, went 50 days between games. Niagara, which has had several games switched, recently went 20 days between games.
There’s a nagging inconsistency in the science, too. Witherspoon said he’s had players test negative one day, positive two days later, and negative two days after that. He tested positive the second time on a Monday, then negative twice later in the week.
Witherspoon said he’s had to get accustomed to telling his players, “I don’t know.”
“There’s things you can’t explain,” he said. “It’s a novel coronavirus. Some of it, I don’t know. These are college people. They’re really upset about it. How could this be? I hope someone reads the story and is able to give us an answer.”
It’s been a “pretty continuous stream of someone being out” for the Griffs. You have a practice, but three or four players are missing. Some days, the number is so low they do individual workouts rather than work five-on-five. He said there have been four practices all year in which no one was gone due to Covid.
Witherspoon said it allows the coaches to spend more time with players on personal development, to help them mature as young men. But you miss the moral lift that come from playing the game they love and seeing themselves get better.
“It’s really hard,” he said. “I just hope people understand the sacrifices and the commitment for someone to do this. These are college kids, many of whom have not seen their families in a long time.”
Senior Jalanni White played in his home state of Connecticut last weekend. His father flew from Chicago just to see White briefly in the parking lot as he walked from the arena to the team bus.
It can take a toll on college players. Witherspoon has talked with coaches who worry about the mental health of their kids. He said the athletes spend an inordinate amount of time in their dorm rooms, and their sleep patterns can get thrown off.
“I think this mental health thing is dangerous,” he said.
Then there’s the physical grind. They say staying in shape is a lot easier than getting into shape. Basketball players get into supreme shape over a season. The preseason is the toughest part, when they’re running to the point of exhaustion at the end of workouts.
“When we come back, you can only do it so gradually,” Reggie said. “There is some gradual process, we can’t run them into the ground. But they’ve been sitting in a dorm room. They haven’t even taken a flight of stairs.
“Then they come out and they can’t make a layup. They can’t make a shot, can’t dunk the basketball. They’re passing and hitting each other in the kneecaps. Then you have to go play.”
But playing is what they live for. That’s the reward for the guys at Canisius and other hoop programs ravaged by Covid. In their second game back from the 40-day pause, the Griffs had their best performance of the season in an 89-70 win at Quinnipiac.
You should have seen the smiles on their faces.
“Oh, my God!” Reggie said. “Just putting on a uniform and going down to that locker room and warming up for a game. Coming into the locker room, you could see how excited they were to have that privilege back.”
They have six games left in the regular season, counting this weekend’s pair at Fairfield. Barring any pauses, the Griff will meet the 13-game requirement to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. To get there, of course, they have to win the MAAC tourney, scheduled for March 8-13 in Atlantic City.
“There’s a really, really, really intense desire to do that,” Witherspoon said.
Regardless of how this season ends, the Canisius players can take comfort in knowing that the NCAA will grant everyone who desires an extra year of eligibility, no matter how many games they play.
“I can tell you this,” Witherspoon said. “They sure earned it.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.