As the news broke that the NBA was suspending its season, Vic Lombardi scanned American Airlines Center from his seat on press row looking for one person: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Cuban, a vocal figure within the league, was the one seated inside the arena to speak with about the unprecedented news that would halt the NBA season. If there was any new information about the league’s next move, Cuban could be a source of news.
“I just searched for him.” Lombardi told DNVR. “The Mavs public relations people got a little mad at me, they wanted me to go through them for the interview. But I mean it was a bigger story than any other night in my career.”
Lombardi was seeking out new information about the most significant NBA event of the season and our lifetimes. His role as a sideline reporter and analyst for Altitude typically has him reporting on what’s happening around the Nuggets during a game and what Michael Malone is relaying to his team during a timeout. But it became obvious to Lombardi along with Chris Marlowe and Scott Hastings, who were calling what would potentially be the Nuggets and NBA’s final regular season game, that the action on the court was suddenly very secondary.
Lombardi spent most of that eventful Wednesday night passing on the critical news and information that he was gathering to both Altitude’s viewers at home and the broadcast booth.
“You’re watching the game and trying to be attentive, but to be honest I don’t remember much of the game because my eyes were glued to my phone,” Lombardi said. “In the first half I’m telling Chris and Scott that something crazy’s happening in OKC, that players from both teams had gone to their respective locker rooms and they called off the game. That was my role.”
The entire night was a blur for Lombardi, Marlowe and Hastings who were tasked with calling a basketball game while on air managing the distribution of news about a national pandemic that was gaining steam. Ahead of the game, there was an uncomfortable level of anxiety about what the future held.
Earlier that afternoon, the Warriors announced that they’d play the following night in San Francisco without any fans in attendance after the city’s mayor banned public gatherings of 1,000 or more people, and many around the team felt at the time that it could be the last game that the Nuggets would play this season with fans. Still, there was a sense of normality to some upon arriving at the arena even amid the rising concerns about the coronavirus.
“The lead-up to the game seemed somewhat normal. It seemed like you’re on a three-game road trip that was going to be real significant against three really good teams,” Hastings said. “You’re trying to chase the Clippers and hold off the teams behind you. The start of the game had a big game feel to it, to me it did. Then by the mid-first quarter things start changing a bit.”
What happened midway through the first quarter had nothing to do with the 19-13 lead that the Nuggets jumped out to in Dallas, but centered around events transpiring 200 miles north at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Just moments before the Jazz and Thunder were set to tip-off in Oklahoma City the game was called.
Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA’s first case of the novel coronavirus. The NBA suspended the season an hour and a half later.
“We got the note in the first half that Rudy Gobert tested positive,” Marlowe said. “Vic Lombardi announced it on air and at that point it was a fait accompli. You had a feeling what was going to happen and what was about to go down.”
For the rest of regulation, Marlowe and Hastings delicately balanced calling the action on the court while also staying aware of the gravity of the situation around them. Nothing can compare to a global pandemic, but Denver’s two-man booth had been in situations where they had called a game before, after or during a newsworthy event that was bigger than basketball.
In 2003, Marlowe went on air shortly after the United States invaded Iraq. Hastings was on the air the day of the Columbine high school massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, 9/11 and the day after the 2012 Aurora theater shootings. Both had just called a Nuggets game earlier this season that tipped off around an hour after news of Kobe Bryant’s passing circulated throughout Pepsi Center.
“In those moments, your world stops and you have to go into another mode,” said Hastings. “You go more into a news gathering, news delivering mode. And when I normally call a game, I’m breaking down film and then I try to explain it to the audience so they understand what they’re seeing. That night became a combination of the two in the sense that something big was going to be thrust upon us and no one expected it at the time. And yet you still have three quarters of the game to cover. You’re doing this balancing act of game and news coverage.”
The Nuggets trailed the Mavericks 57-50 at halftime and closed to within one point at the end of the third quarter as Marlowe and Hastings tried to stay up to date with the latest from Oklahoma City and the league.
“I was calling the game and looking at my phone the entire night which I don’t normally do,” Marlowe said. “I normally check my phone at timeouts but I had my phone open the whole game.”
Early in the fourth quarter after the NBA had put the season on hold, Lombard tracked down Cuban by his usual seats on the baseline closest to the Mavs bench.
“The news was changing by the minute. I’ve never seen the news cycle change so quickly,” said Lombardi. “The game meant very little by the end of it.
Behind Luka Doncic’s 28 points and Boban Marjanovic’s career-high 31, Dallas coasted to a win. Jamal Murray led the Nuggets with 25 points. Will Barton chipped in 23. Nikola Jokic tallied 14 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
No one covering the game made it a point to remember any details of what happened in between the lines that night.
“All I remember was the Nuggets were up early. It was a close game throughout and in the fourth and the Mavs pulled away. I don’t remember how, the details, the leading scorer, the game has vanished in my brain,” said Lombardi. “I just remember the fans looking down at their phones as they were trying to sort through this. And the fans exited fast. We did too.”
Once the final buzzer sounded, both the Nuggets and Mavs went to their respective locker rooms. Denver conducted its media availability quickly. Michael Malone spoke for around seven minutes and was followed by Paul Millsap. The Nuggets then boarded two buses and traveled to the airport wondering if this was the last time they’d go through an actual gameday routine this season.
Denver was scheduled to fly to San Antonio next for a matchup two days later against the Spurs, but with the season suspended Nuggets officials worked diligently during the game to re-rout the team charter back home. According to those on board, there was a sense of relief that the team was traveling back to Denver that night.
Normally on the team plane following a loss you can hear a pin drop. There’s no excess chatter. But during the two hours that the team was airborne following the loss in Dallas there was a healthy amount of talk about the day’s events.
Malone even joked on the plane that following the news of the suspended season he was hoping the league was going to stop the game in the third quarter and more specifically during the first five minutes of the period when the Nuggets held a lead.
No one knows when the NBA will return and Denver’s 113-97 loss could be the last game of the 2019-20 regular season. While the league wants to play out the rest of the schedule, hold the playoffs and crown a champion, it’s impossible at this stage of the COVID-19 pandemic to have a firm grasp on what a timetable to put those plans into motion would look like especially with the league’s recent decision to close team facilities.
Wednesday, March 11 will go down as a seminal moment in league history. For the trio that called the action that night in Dallas, it’s an evening that will be scarred into their memory.
“It was a night that I’ll never forget in my career, let alone my life,” Lombardi said.