A week before The Basketball Tournament tipped off, alumnus and former Hatchet editor Ben Solomon was quarantined in his home outside of Manhattan, New York when his phone rang.
Solomon was offered the opportunity to be the sole photographer for the tournament, one of the few sporting events taking place in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic. After calming his initial “uneasy” feelings about hopping on a plane to Columbus, Ohio, he said he jumped at the opportunity to shoot a sporting event again.
“Being a sports photographer, there’s not much going on in that world,” Solomon said. “The availability piece, which is usually my most difficult question to answer just with my schedule, that piece was easy to check off.”
Solomon said he was required to take a COVID-19 test prior to traveling and another test once he arrived in the hotel. He said he quarantined in his hotel room for 24 hours, until his tests came back negative.
The Basketball Tournament bought out a hotel located just a block away from Nationwide Arena and hired private security to ensure the safety of the players and staff, Solomon said. Tests were given to everyone in the bubble on a regular basis for the tournament’s duration, he said.
Throughout the tournament, all members in the bubble were frequently tested and a positive test resulted in the disqualification of an entire team. By the end of the tournament, 43 people tested positive for the virus, resulting in five teams being disqualified.
Solomon said early on in the tournament, those inside the bubble were cautious about interacting with each other but were eventually able to settle into working and living in the same environment.
“There was uneasiness initially, about ‘Well are they even going to be able to pull this off, per se,’” Solomon said. “And then as you got deeper, as you start playing games and then everyone’s getting tested so often, that it kind of felt there was this evolution of making it feel like it was a normal tournament.”
The only time anyone was allowed outside the bubble was for the brief walk to the arena, which Solomon called it the “moment of freedom” during the tournament. Picking up meals inside the building was the only permissible reason to leave the hotel room, he added
“That’s the day – go shoot basketball, which again feels like normalcy again, being able to watch basketball or shoot basketball,” Solomon said. “Then walk back to the hotel and grab dinner and go back up to your room.”
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, The Basketball Tournament was played behind closed doors, and fans and media members were not allowed inside. Aside from the steady presence of a public address announcer in the arena, Solomon said the absence of fans and fellow photographers was “surreal.”
“There’s still security at the front door, but you walk in and when they start playing games, you can hear everything on the court,” he said. “Every single word that comes out of each player’s mouth. Coaches screaming at their players, running a play or whatever, and you don’t hear that usually at most basketball games.”
He said television cameras were rigged to capture the game without an operator present to limit the number of people in the bubble. Without anyone else on the baseline, Solomon said he had the rare chance to take pictures without having to compete with other photojournalists for space.
“Creating access is really important in sports photography,” Solomon said. “I don’t have to duke it out or put my elbows out to box anybody out because I’m the only guy in the building, which is surreal and cool at the same time.”
Solomon wasn’t the only GW alum on the court for the tournament. Guard Maurice Creek, who averaged 14.1 points and sank 80 three-pointers in his single season with the Colonials, competed with Sideline Cancer.
Despite the precautions and adjustments Solomon made throughout the 10-day tournament, he said he is glad to experience his first taste of “normal” since March.
“Not being able to walk out that door and literally even do a lap down the hallway was for sure a strange feeling,” he said. “But it’s something that I was willing, if that’s the most weird thing I have to do, plus being tested all the time, to get to witness and photograph some basketball. I was all about that.”