|The Jan. 17, 1948, game against Duke was canceled after Frank Thompson Gym was condemned.|
What if someone held a sporting event and no one came?
The Baltimore Orioles and Chicago White Sox will find out today when they meet at Orioles Park at Camden Yards with no fans allowed to attend because of violence that has disrupted the city for the last week. It’s the first game in Major League Baseball history to be played in front of an empty stadium, the last four years of the Montreal Expos notwithstanding.
(There was a Miami Marlins doubleheader on Aug. 24, 2011, where the unofficial headcount for first pitch was 347, thanks to the impending arrival of Hurricane Irene.)
It certainly won’t be the first sporting event without spectators, however. In my first job as a sportswriter, I worked at the Salisbury (N.C.) Post during an outbreak of red measles in 1989 that resulted in a three-week quarantine and suspension of all athletics activities.
Measles are highly communicable, of course, and just because you are immunized doesn’t mean you are protected because the immunization, at the time, was not 100 percent effective.
Schools from other counties refused to play Rowan County schools. Catawba College canceled its men’s and women’s basketball seasons after Jan. 9 and didn’t play again. More than 1,000 students in Rowan and Cabarrus Counties had to postpone taking the SAT.
The outbreak was nationwide and hit North Carolina particularly hard, with cases reported in 60 of 100 counties. Even at NC State, after a student was diagnosed with measles, students who couldn’t show proof of immunization were not allowed to attend class. A quick immunization center was set up at the student center to give shots to more than 1,200 students and 150 faculty who didn’t have immunization records.
As the outbreak eased, there was a limited quarantine that allowed the high schools to resume their seasons with an odd solution: Only players and support personnel who could prove they were vaccinated were allowed to attend.
I got my immunization records from my parents and was able to cover several of the games without fans. You think it’s loud in a basketball gym? The sound of one ball bouncing, echoing off the walls and empty stands, is surprisingly deafening.
This went on for a couple of weeks. Teams were not allowed to make up all the games that were missed because the North Carolina High School Athletic Association limited all its teams to just three games per week. The tournament seedings were based on won-loss percentage. (College basketball was also affected: the East Coast Athletics Conference played its entire tournament that year without spectators.)
There was also a long-forgotten NC State men’s basketball game that was played in an empty arena, during the first season after men’s basketball changed its name from the Red Terrors to the Wolfpack.
On Jan. 17, 1948, a game between the Wolfpack and neighboring Duke was canceled when Thompson Gym was condemned by order of Raleigh city building inspector Pallie Magnum because the building had inadequate fire exits for a crowd of more than 1,200. A game against North Carolina a year before was also canceled by the fire marshal because there were too many fans in attendance.
The Wolfpack was forced to move its final seven home games that year to Raleigh’s downtown Memorial Auditorium.
There wasn’t enough time, however, to get the auditorium ready for the Pack’s next home game, against High Point College, since the floor needed to be refinished, sidelines and free-throw lines needed to be painted and baskets needed to be erected.
After initially canceling the game, officials from both schools agreed to play the game at Thompson Gym with no fans in attendance. Only a few reporters and college officials were allowed to see the high scoring game.
Red-headed All-America forward Dick Dickey had a school record 29 points in the contest and teammate Jack McComas added 23. Case’s Wolfpack ran rough-shod over the High Pointers with a 110-50 victory over the High Pointers.
It was the highest scoring game in NC State history until David Thompson came along three dozen years later. It was also the last game Case ever coached in Thompson Gym, where he compiled a perfect 18-0 record in his one-and-a-half seasons as his first home court.
The move to downtown Raleigh lit a fire under school officials to complete the shell of the on-campus coliseum that had been standing dormant since 1941. It didn’t hurt that during an 81-42 victory over North Carolina at the Pack’s substitute home, students finished off the game by chanting “We want a coliseum. We want a coliseum.”
Construction restarted on what would become Reynolds Coliseum in the summer of 1948 and the doors opened on Dec. 2, 1949, in a game against Washington & Lee.
The vagabond Pack didn’t seem to be affected by its home-court flux throughout the season. It was the highest-scoring team in the nation for most of the season and it earned the school’s first No. 1 ranking in the national polls. Thanks to a 19-game winning streak from December-March, the Pack finished 29-3 overall, was a perfect 12-0 in the Southern Conference regular season, won the second of six consecutive league tournament titles, despite Dickey being out of the lineup with a case of the mumps.
Passed over by the NCAA in favor of eventual national-champion Kentucky for the eight-team NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack accepted its second consecutive bid to the National Invitation Tournament. Without Dickey, the Pack lost to DePaul in the first round at Madison Square Garden.
Still, it was the most successful season in NC State basketball history until the 1972-73 team posted a perfect 27-0 record, when the stands were full for every game.