BLOOMINGTON — On Thanksgiving Eve, Race Thompson dunked the ball.
It was early in the first half in what would end up being a 19-point Indiana victory. Thompson, starting behind the 3-point line, cut toward the basket. Malik Reneau shoveled a pass. Thompson cocked the ball back with two arms and slammed it down.
Fans raised their arms in the air. Assembly Hall roared its roar. Clapping reverberated.
Nowadays, it wasn’t a response out of the ordinary. Yet there was a time when it was.
Due to COVID-19, two seasons ago was far different. Basketball was played, but part of what makes the sport special felt like it was lost. Last season wasn’t normal, either.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, it’s worth taking a few moments to appreciate where we are. Be thankful for basketball. The simple things. A dunk and a cheer. The atmosphere in the building. Being able to have a normal basketball season. After the past few years, there was a feeling of not taking things for granted. So let’s not.
“I think just being grateful, just being able to be around everybody, being able to have fans,” Thompson said. “I mean, yeah, just being grateful every day because it can be taken away in a split second.”
The world was different back then. It was hard on life. It was hard on basketball, including the 2020-21 college basketball season. Ahead of IU’s opener that season, a sign on Assembly Hall read “CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC”. Attendance at IU’s home games was extremely limited. Player introductions were greeted with a cheer probably closer to that of a competition in the library than a sporting event. Collectively, it was a college basketball season riddled with tests, postponements and cancellations.
“It’s really hard,” Thompson said in Dec. 2020. “You go from online class to online tutoring to practice and then back home and every day. It’s hard to just stay in your apartment with your roommates and with your teammates all the time and you can’t really go do what you want to do all the time.”
Even last season wasn’t normal. For the entirety of the men’s basketball regular season, masks were required at Assembly Hall. An IU game scheduled for late December was canceled. It hits the IU women’s program even harder. Last season, it had multiple games postponed.
“I think the perspective that we did gain as a coach and hopefully as athletes is just the appreciation of what we get to do every day and how grateful and lucky we are that we get to play such a great game at such a great university in such a great conference,” IU women’s coach Teri Moren said. “And be able to get in the gym every day and see each other. That’s what I missed. I missed the face time. I missed hanging out with our staff and our players. And those are things you take for granted. That ‘oh, here we go, another practice, another day in the gym.’ But when you don’t have that, boy, you really start to miss it.”
That’s why it’s important to be grateful for a night like Wednesday. Masks are no longer required in Assembly Hall. Right now, COVID-19 issues in college basketball are an afterthought.
Before Wednesday’s game, Martha the Mop Lady showed up on the jumbotron. At a certain point, the crowd started clapping in unison. Players ran out between a path made up of cheerleaders. A live band played. Fans cheered. At halftime, people gave in cream and crimson filled the concourse. There was a smell of buttery popcorn. Kids wore candy stripe pants. During a stoppage in the game, a name that tune segment played on the jumbotron, in which IU players were supposed to guess a song. It was “Love Shack.”
“I don’t know this one,” Miller Kopp said, shaking his head with a smile.
It’s easy to take these moments for granted. It’s best not to.
Following Wednesday’s game, a video was posted on IU men’s coach Mike Woodson’s Twitter account. He was speaking to his team and staff.
“We should all be thankful,” he said in the video. “Thanksgiving tomorrow. We should all be thankful, really. We live good lives, man. You guys got scholarships to go to college, to get an education to play basketball. Doing something that you love to do. And I know I’m grateful. Thankful. Blessed.”
Basketball can mean different things to different people. It’s fascinating how this game can hold so much importance in our lives. Players, coaches, fans. In the narrow scope, this is a game about putting a ball through a hoop. In the broad scope, it is about so much more. On Thanksgiving and beyond, don’t forget to appreciate what it means to you.