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No spectators will be allowed in Gaines Center for WSSU basketball games
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No spectators will be allowed in Gaines Center for WSSU basketball games

Winston-Salem State Piedmont International Mens Basketball

WSSU students wait in line at the Gaines Center two years ago for a game with Piedmont International. Students were turned away at most games last season because the Gaines Center filled up on most nights.

The historic Gaines Center with no spectators for basketball games this season at Winston-Salem State will be a strange sight.

But that’s the reality as WSSU continues to prepare for some sort of a season during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The old building that opened in 1978 that still has no air-conditioning sits right in the middle of campus and is one of the toughest places to play in the CIAA. But that’s only when the students turn out in full force, usually around 3,000 crammed into the arena named for the legendary Clarence “Big House” Gaines.

What makes such a great atmosphere is the Red Sea of Sound bouncing its sound off the walls, making it impossible to hear the person next to you.

All of that will be missing because of the global pandemic that is not showing any signs of slowing.

“We will have no fans,” said Etienne Thomas, WSSU’s athletics director. “And that will be hard, but when you look at the numbers (of cases) and how this virus isn’t slowing down it’s the only way to go.”

Thomas said the entire CIAA basketball season would have no fans at games. Parents of players would be the first allowed to attend games.

Winston-Salem State Piedmont International Mens Basketball

Winston-Salem State students flocked to the Gaines Center in recent years. They won't get that chance this season.

“Right now, we aren’t even allowing parents in, but what we want to do is make the fan experience work in a virtual way,” Thomas said.

The WSSU women’s and men’s teams have non-conference games lined up in December, but the school hasn’t released a schedule because of the uncertainty.

Thomas said both teams are scheduled to play at Virginia Union on Jan. 9 in their CIAA openers.

Clyde Doughty, Bowie State's athletics director and president of the CIAA Athletics Directors Association, said the no-fans decision is a safety issue driven by the science of the virus.

“We have done so much just to be able to play these games and get them on the schedule and to play them in a safe manor,” Doughty said. “The science and the data points in this direction, so not having fans at the games will be strange especially since a lot of the schools have small gyms.

“If we allowed fans in, we just aren’t equipped to monitor the social distancing and everything it takes to keep folks apart. It just doesn’t make sense to take the chance of having fans at our games.”

The Rams men will be trying to repeat as conference champions. The last time the Rams repeated as champions was 20 years ago. Coach Rick Duckett won CIAA titles in 1999 and 2000.

Men's coach Cleo Hill Jr. said just after his team began practice that he didn’t want to think about playing games at the Gaines Center without fans. He spoke last season about fan support at home, where spectators would be turned away at the door after the Gaines Center filled.

20170131w_spt_wssuhoops

Robert Colon, who graduated last season after helping the Rams to the CIAA championship, shoots in front of a full house at the Gaines Center.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Hill said this month. “I guess we got a sample of watching what basketball looks like in the NBA bubble with limited or no fans. The NBA did a great job with the atmosphere. We just have to see how it goes.”

Steve Joyner Sr., the athletics director and legendary basketball coach of the Johnson C. Smith men, says all of the coaches at his school will wear masks during games.

“That’s the plan,” said Joyner, a Winston-Salem native and CIAA Hall of Fame member whose teams are 572-374 in 33 seasons with three CIAA titles.

“We’re not sure how all of this is going to play out,” Joyner said. “As you can see all over the country this thing is changing our way of life. There are a lot of unknowns that we probably haven’t even thought about yet.”

WSSU women's coach L’Tona Lamonte said she was preparing her team to play in front of no fans.

“It will be different without fans, but I think with how the numbers have been going it’s the only way to stay safe,” Lamonte said. “It will feel strange, but from what we’ve seen in other sports the games are being played, so that’s a plus.”

Lamonte said the goal is to create a bubble for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. Students are taking exams this week and will be finished for the semester next week. 

The spring semester doesn’t start until February, giving both teams a chance to stay COVID-19 free with plenty of testing scheduled. Men’s and women’s players have been tested three times per week.

“It will be our own bubble, and I will say that John Lavender (head athletics trainer) and his staff are doing a great job in setting up our protocols and making sure everything is going smooth," Lamonte said.

Cases at WSSU have been relatively low, according to the campus’ COVID-19 dashboard. Since August when in-person classes started at WSSU there have been just 115 confirmed cases for students or employees.

That’s a far cry from the recent COVID-19 surge in Forsyth County. As of Tuesday the county reached a record-high of hospitalizations from COVID-19 with 1,501, and there have been 13 deaths over the last four days, according to DHHS.

“Our dashboard is accurate and we’ve been doing a good job on our campus,” Thomas said.

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@johndellWSJ

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