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It was the hottest basketball sectional. Then attendees started dying of coronavirus —

On March 6, there were five people in Indianapolis’ Lawrence Central High School gym who later died after testing positive for coronavirus.

It was the hottest basketball sectional. Then attendees started dying of coronavirus —

Kyle NeddenriepIndianapolis Star0:100:17

It was the hottest ticket in the state of Indiana for high school basketball. Four great teams. An electric atmosphere was guaranteed for the night of March 6 at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis, where 2,800 fans would pack the gym for the sectional semifinals.

But early on that Friday afternoon, the calls started coming in to Lawrence Central.

It was revealed by state officials at 11 a.m. that the first person in Indiana had tested positive for coronavirus at Community Health North, four miles from the school.

“We started getting calls,” Lawrence Central athletic director Ryan Banas said, “wondering if we were still going to play.”

The games were played that night — and the following night — just like they were in 63 other venues around the state. Fans at Lawrence Central that week for Sectional 10 were treated to a basketball bonanza of incredible games and individual performances.

But on that night of March 6, there were five people in the gym who later died after testing positive for coronavirus. There’s no way to know if they contracted it at Lawrence Central. But families are left to mourn.

Warren Central High School junior Malik Stanley (12), right, inbounds the ball to teammate Derek Jefferson (33) during the first half of action in an IHSAA boys’ semi-final sectional basketball game against North Central High School, Friday, March 6, 2020, at Lawrence Central High School.

Paul Loggan was there, standing much of the game at the end of North Central’s bench. Roscoe Taylor was there, sitting in the lower level of Warren Central High School section. So was Charles Johnson, three rows up behind the Warren Central bench and next to his wife, Kay. Larry Rush was there, too, in the Lawrence North High School section, one of the “Four Horsemen” of Wildcat fans. And Jim DeSalle, took a seat for the second game, near the Lawrence North bench. The following night, he would climb a ladder, smile and clip a piece of the sectional championship net.

In the coming days or weeks, all five men would die from health complications caused by the coronavirus. At least a dozen others who were there have tested positive or experienced symptoms consistent with the virus.

“The problem with any communal event like a basketball tournament is that you’ve got a clustering of people in close proximity,” said Dr. Cole Beeler, infectious diseases doctor at Indiana University Health.

There is no way to pinpoint exactly when the virus spread. Loggan, 57, was only at Lawrence Central one night, for a little more than two hours. He worked around hundreds of people all day, every day. DeSalle, 70, attended a Lawrence Township youth basketball event the day of the sectional championship game. Rush, 67, was an Uber driver. Johnson, 78, went to the grocery store and church that weekend. Taylor, 43, was around kids and adults in his job as a cafeteria worker at Stonybrook Middle School.

Hindsight is 20/20. On March 6, the reality is the people inside Lawrence Central’s gym — or any other high school gym in the state — were not thinking about the possibility of contracting coronavirus. There were hugs. There were handshakes. There were high-fives. Everything that seemed normal about basketball still existed that weekend. It was not until later, with the benefit of time, that a more complete picture began to emerge.

“The sad thing looking back,” said Kay Johnson, the widow of Charles Johnson, “is that we didn’t know.”

***

What did we know on the afternoon of March 6?

About an hour-and-a-half before Banas first heard the news from a colleague, state officials revealed the first person in Indiana had tested positive for coronavirus. The man, who had recently returned from a trip to Boston, was said to be in isolation and not considered a high risk to develop severe illness. 

“There is no ongoing risk to the public,” state department of health commissioner Dr. Kris Box said that day in relation to that specific case.

Box encouraged Hoosiers to cover their coughs, wash hands thoroughly, elbow bump instead of shaking hands and stay home if sick before adding: “The situation with COVID-19 is changing rapidly and we can expect to see other cases in Indiana in the future.”

Darren Thomas, the district athletic director for Indianapolis Public Schools, called Banas early that afternoon to ask if the sectional would move forward as planned. Banas, after talking to his administration, reached out to the Indiana High School Athletic Association. At 2:05 p.m., the IHSAA issued the following statement:

“We will continue to monitor the developments and listen to medical experts and if it becomes necessary to make adjustments to high school sporting events, we will work with our member schools to take every precaution to ensure a healthy and safe environment for everyone involved.”

Just before 3 p.m., with the blessing of the other four athletic directors — Warren Central’s Marques Clayton, Crispus Attucks’ Chris Hawkins, Lawrence North’s Mike Penrose and North Central’s Paul Loggan — Banas sent a tweet from Lawrence Central’s athletic department Twitter account directing fans to the IHSAA statement, adding: “We have received numerous calls this afternoon regarding the coronavirus case in Marion County and the status of our sectional games tonight. The games will be played as scheduled.”

As they were in 63 other venues that night in Indiana, the games were played.

Another packed house watched as Warren Central junior Malik Stanley scored 34 points to outduel North Central super sophomore Leland Walker and his 30 points in a 77-69 win and Lawrence North rally from a five-point deficit in the final 1:37 to overcome Sincere McMahon’s 32-point outburst to win a 76-73 thriller over Crispus Attucks.

It was high school basketball at its best. 

***

Late the next night, after Lawrence North wrapped up its first sectional title in five years, Lawrence North assistant Jim Stanbrough sat at a table with DeSalle at Alibi’s Grill on North Shadeland Avenue, a common postgame meeting spot for the coaching staff.

The rest of the Lawrence North staff was spread out among three other tables. There were smiles and laughs as they replayed the week. Sectional week started with a dominant performance on Wednesday in a win over rival Lawrence Central, followed by the close calls against Attucks and Warren Central. It was a time to unwind a bit before preparation started for the regional on March 14.

Stanbrough, 64, has replayed that night over and over in his mind. DeSalle, 70, fell ill a few days later and was hospitalized. He tested positive for coronavirus and died on April 1.

“That night is something I’ll never forget,” Stanbrough said. “Jim and I sat at a table, just the two of us. I’ll always remember that. Did I give it to him? Did he give it to me? I don’t know the answer. There were a lot of people connected to it.”

Stanbrough started feeling sick the after their dinner. Three days later on March 10, he visited a doctor. He tested positive for the flu, but even with medicine he said he “kept going downhill.” Fevers. Dry coughs. Stanbrough visited the emergency room on March 17 and 19 and was sent home. Two days later, he was back again but this time we was admitted. 

He tested positive for COVID-19 at IU Health North on March 23. Stanbrough stayed in the hospital for six days.

“I came home and got to feeling better for a couple days,” he said. “Then I started going south again and started having some pretty severe chest pains.”

On April 2, Stanbrough was readmitted and spent another six days in the hospital. An ultrasound discovered he had blood clots in both legs and his lungs. Stanbrough, who had no pre-existing health conditions previously, will be on blood thinners for several months. His wife, Marta, also tested positive for coronavirus, though her symptoms were limited to losing her senses of taste and smell.

“Those first couple days I went in, I was very scared,” Stanbrough said. “You start thinking about things you don’t want to think about. Who is going to take care of this or that. You start thinking about those things.”

That same week DeSalle and Stanbrough started to feel ill, Gerad Good, another assistant on the Lawrence North staff, did too. Four days after the sectional championship, Good, 49, had chills. He slept in his traveling sweatsuit, wrapped in blankets. His temperature rocketed to 102, then 103. 

“Headaches were kind of the start of it,” Good said. “I had body aches and started taking Tylenol to heal some of that pain. I thought I was coming down with the flu or a sinus infection.”

Good twice visited the doctor and was told it could be a sinus infection. It was not until it was confirmed to him that both DeSalle and Stanbrough had tested positive for coronavirus that Good was able to also get tested. It, too, was positive.

For 17 days, Good said he had a fever that reached as high as 103.8 one night. Fortunately for Good, who is asthmatic, the virus never got into his lungs.

“It almost feels like a dream that it even happened,” Good said. “You don’t think you can get that sick. There’s no way. I was just like everybody else, washing my hands and giving people elbow taps. I was being safe — or thought I was. That’s all we knew at our level.”

On March 12, two days prior to the regional, the IHSAA announced the games at the 16 regional sites would go on as scheduled, but with spectators limited to 75 people per school and to include only essential personnel, coaches, administrative staff and immediate family. But the sports world was literally changing by the minute. As IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox stepped to the podium at the IHSAA office just before noon on March 12, the Big Ten announced it was calling off its tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Twenty-four hours later, at noon on Friday, the IHSAA announced it was postponing the tournament. Had the games been played, Lawrence North would have been without Stanbrough, Good and DeSalle on the bench that regional Saturday.

“There was no way,” said Good, who lost 22 pounds and is still not well. “I wasn’t even thinking about basketball.”

***

It seems clear now that the coronavirus was already spreading during the sectional week that started on March 3 and probably even before. On March 11, when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus and the NBA subsequently suspended its season, the reality of how serious the disease is and how quickly it can spread became real for many people in the sports world.

“We have a good idea of how this virus spreads,” Dr. Beeler, said. “We think it spreads by large droplets that are passed out of the mouth when people are breathing or talking or shouting. It’s infectious around a 6-foot radius.

“The thing that’s scary about this virus is that you can infect someone and not have any symptoms yourself. It may have been that there was someone there, or a few people there, that were infected and didn’t even know they were infected.”

It is possible, even likely, that all of the extra precautions that week would not have mattered because of the nature of a sectional tournament, too, he said.

“You’ve got a bunch of people sitting close to each other,” Dr. Beeler added. “The other thing is that people are probably yelling and screaming and cheering on their teams. We know you’re probably kicking out a lot more droplets as you talk and scream than you would if you are just breathing or talking in a normal voice.”

He said some studies have suggested that loud talking and singing might spread droplets even further.

“It would make it a pretty fertile territory for spreading infection.”

Hindsight is 20/20 he said.

“Right now I can tell you, ‘Oh yeah, for sure. We should have easily done stuff differently back then.’ But we had almost no information back then,” Dr. Beeler said. “It was just starting to hit us. The consequences of shutting everything back down back then weren’t fully understood.”

If a fan attending the games the night of March 6 had paid attention, they would have noticed, the workers handling the tickets, money and programs were wearing gloves. There was hand sanitizer on the table. That night, after the games, the workers cleaning the gym wore gloves as they disinfected every railing, every chair, every table in the gym.

Banas, who has Lyme disease and later found out he is considered higher risk for severe illness from coronavirus, remembers at one point turning to athletic administrative assistant Lauren Hughes and asking: “Are we overreacting?”

“All any of us knew that Friday was that one guy had it at Community North and was back home,” Banas said. “I felt like we did everything we could with the little knowledge that we had at that point.”

***

Khyrie Abdullah, 33, did not attend Sectional 10 on the weekend, but he was there on March 3 for the Warren Central-Tech game and the sold-out doubleheader on Wednesday (March 4) between Lawrence Central and Lawrence North and Cathedral and Crispus Attucks. On March 10, Abdullah, a track coach at Lawrence Central and assistant football coach, started to feel sick. On March 16, he went to the hospital with dizziness and shortness of breath. On March 19, he went on a ventilator and stayed on it for 13 days, during which time his coronavirus test came back positive.

Abdullah woke up on April 1 and has been in the recovery process since. He returned home this week. His wife, Lauren, is due with their first child on June 14. She and the baby are healthy.

“I probably walked around with it for two weeks and had no idea,” Abdullah said. “I’m lucky. The doctors said my age probably helped. My wife went into superhero mode. I was out for two weeks and thought it was two hours. It was like somebody just turned out the lights. I’ve thought a lot about it. Why did my body respond and not others? I’m thankful. The staff at Community North was incredible.”

Scott Frank was also at the sectional on Wednesday, March 4, for both games of the doubleheader. Frank’s son, Jarret, was a senior on the Cathedral team. By March 11, he was experiencing symptoms that included headaches, extreme fatigue and dizziness. On March 20, he found out he had tested positive for coronavirus.

Frank, 51, never experienced any chest pain, but did lose his sense of smell.

“The timeline does fit the window of the sectional, but at that time we thought it was mostly restricted to Washington,” Frank said. “It didn’t even cross my mind in that moment that we could be impacted, even when we heard about that first case on March 6. There was so much energy in the building for those games. It was fantastic. I was looking forward to seeing what Lawrence North could do in the regional.”

Kay Johnson, the widow of Charles Johnson, has replayed that week over in her mind. Charles, 79, died on March 27 after testing positive for coronavirus. The Johnsons attended the sectional on March 3, 6 and 7. Kay also fell ill with symptoms, but was never officially tested.

“I feel like that’s probably where we got it,” she said. “I could have got it first and passed it to him. Too many have gotten sick who were there. The sad thing is we just didn’t know. We didn’t have the information to go on. It’s unfortunate what has happened to this fan base.”

Another Warren Central fan, Roscoe Taylor III, died on April 5 after testing positive for coronavirus. Taylor’s father, Roscoe Taylor, Jr., died from coronavirus complications on March 29 at age 66. Roscoe Taylor III would have turned 44 on Thursday.

“It was right around March 20 when he started running fevers and feeling sick,” said Taylor’s brother, Damon Taylor. “We were talking to him every day on the phone up until they had to put him on the ventilator.”

Damon Taylor said it is possible his brother could have contracted the virus through his father or vice versa. Roscoe Taylor III was living with his parents. “They got sick around the same time,” he said.

There were others in the building that week who later tested positive. Christopher and Linda Gunn, parents of Lawrence North sophomore C.J. Gunn, did. Shawn Crull, a teacher at Hamilton Southeastern and broadcaster for Indiana SRN, tested positive. Many others exhibited symptoms consistent with coronavirus, but we not tested. Denis Schinderle, a referee working his final sectional, was one of those. Felix Rogers, a videographer for the In the Gym Hoops, was another. There were also players who experienced symptoms.

“It’s hard not to think about it now, looking back,” Cathedral coach Jason Delaney said. “You think about fans screaming and how close everybody was to each other. You start thinking, ‘Man, it was all around us.’ But there was no way of knowing that.”

There is no way of knowing exactly how it spread or where DeSalle, Loggan, Johnson, Taylor and Rush contracted the virus. What we do know is all five were in the same gym on March 6 doing nothing more than watching the best high school basketball doubleheader in the state that night.

“I’ve thought about it hundreds of times,” Good said. “My wife Robin and I talked about it. Those were the most fun games I’ve been part of in a long, long time. That was great basketball for three or four days — a packed gym with nothing but good teams competing and working their butts off. It was great.

“But then you start putting the pieces together… all we know is that this virus has changed a lot of people’s lives.”

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.

Reporter Matthew VanTryon contributed quotations from Dr. Cole Beeler for this story.

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