Going into the 2020-21 College Basketball season, the Saint Louis University Billikens made a choice about how they were going to go do things throughout the season. They decided not to take risks, limit their interactions outside of the program, and (most difficultly) opted not to go home for the holidays and see their families.
The choice was made to try and accomplish something they felt was within their grasp. Should they take these extra precautions and not ‘indulge in these luxuries,’ they would remain in a space where completing their season unimpaired was possible. To this point, that mission was successful; the one canceled game on the schedule was not due to a positive test but a precaution on the side of the Evansville Purple Aces.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, it seems COVID-19 will find a way to slip in the cracks.
The Saint Louis Men’s Basketball team has paused all operations until further notice after a positive COVID-19 test came back from their most recent round of testing on December 28th. The team has postponed their games with Duquesne and UMass already and will likely do so with their games against La Salle and Saint Joseph’s.
Most seasons, when the holidays come around, Travis Ford allows his players to go home for the holidays for as many as five days to spend time with family, celebrate the Christmas holiday, and rest and recharger their batteries ahead of the gauntlet of challenges the team will face over the next three to four months.
But 2020 is not like most years. The holiday season of 2020 for the Saint Louis University Men’s Basketball team was spent in their campus dorms or in the practice facility. This meant that spending time with families or leaving the relatively safe confines of their campus bubble was not in the cards. Despite having plenty of SLU players who live, as St. Louis native Terrence Hargrove Jr would call it, “a short walk down the road,” the Billikens stayed in.
For the most part, the team practiced over the holidays, taking just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off to rest and relax. Team leader Hasahn French said of his time off that he, “Just stayed home and just relaxed with my dog. There wasn’t a whole lot of anything else.” The Senior forward already had his own battle with Covid and has talked publicly about the challenges he faced after losing his Grandmother to the virus. Due to these challenges staying in his campus housing was difficult for French. “It was challenging. I’m used to being home with my family, and especially this is a year where I would have wanted to have been home with my family given all that has happened this year.”
But for Hasahn, the decision was for the best, ““I just thought that it will all be worth it at the end when I’m holding a championship.”
While a true Christmas was not an option for the Billikens this year. The team, though, did get an opportunity to gather to celebrate the holiday season outside the intense context of a Travis Ford practice. The group gathered on Christmas Eve, where the coaches handed out gifts to the players. The team was generally able to celebrate the holiday spirit. What type of gifts, you may ask? “SLU tee-shirts, basketball shoes, team gear in general,” Travis Ford says with a laugh knowing that any other type of gift may be deemed inadmissible by the NCAA.
It was at this meeting that Ford bared his soul to the team. Letting them know how sorry he was for the events that had transpired leading to this moment and how heartbroken he was for his team to not experience the Christmas holiday in a normal way.
“I told them how much I appreciated them, how they handled it. Nobody had any long faces, even though I knew they wanted to be home.” Travis Ford said in a Zoom call after the Christmas holiday. “Our guys have made a true commitment; they’ve been really dedicated to doing the best they can to stay safe and to not let them go home now was really tough.”
“It was a struggle for me,” Ford elaborated, “and I know it was a struggle for them, but I really struggled with it. I told them I apologized, and that I’m sorry. That I’ve struggled emotionally with not be able to, or letting them, go home…it was tough. Even though there were only really two days off, so there wasn’t an enormous amount of time they were sitting around… I’ve always let our players go home for three or four days. It’s a great opportunity for them to see their families, to get away and recharge their batteries.”
Travis Ford is not one to hide his emotions in any way, even in regular times. As fiery and bombastic as he is on the sidelines, this is the same man who wept at a press conference podium after learning of the passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. The Corona Virus altered season has deeply impacted Coach Ford. The Christmas Holiday weighed heavy on the coach.
Considering all of this, it only makes the more recent shut down more difficult to swallow for those inside the program. The Billikens had successfully avoided COVID-19 complications and shutdowns up until this point in the season…and nothing has changed in the way they operate or function. The only change, perhaps, is their luck. With the SLU women’s team having had to shut down twice now, it seemed like perhaps it was only a matter of time before something went wrong.
The timing of the pause, unfortunately, makes the situation hurt all that more. While you always wish for the health of the people involved in the best of times, it almost makes the players’ sacrifice seem worthless considering the outcomes. Had the shutdown happened in the weeks before Christmas or early in November, not only would the future logistical struggles of the team be alleviated, the team may have been able to enjoy Christmas in a more normal way.
We don’t know when SLU will return to the court. The official release says the team will only return “after all personnel are cleared via the extensive Saint Louis University campus COVID-19 testing procedures and protocols.” But they will return. The Billikens are still on the cusp of greatness in 2021, and roadblocks were expected.