You’d think I would have clued in earlier that I was about to walk into a situation the likes of which I had not experienced in quite some time.
It didn’t hit me right away, though.
Not when I drove through the busy parking lot, searching in vain for an open space, and not as I speed-walked through the rain, along with a crowd of others, from my far-away, overflow parking spot and into the Langley Events Centre Saturday night, as I prepared to cover a pair of high-school senior boys basketball championship games.
No, it wasn’t until I was sitting court-side in my seat along media row that it hit me.
“Hey, there’s a lot of people here.”
In any other situation, such an observation – delayed or otherwise – wouldn’t even merit mentioning.
After all, the B.C. High School Basketball Championships are historically the biggest, most well-attended high-school athletic event on the calendar, and when the finals come around, available seats at the LEC – and the PNE Agrodome before it – are always in short supply.
But this still seemed…different.
For starters, it wasn’t just a full building, it was a really full building, with the upper reaches of the arena bowl filled and most of the suites in use, too. Attendance records were set, I was told.
And the games weren’t just well-attended – they were loud. From the opening introductions of the 3A game – which featured Elgin Park – to the celebration from Burnaby South supporters after their team defeated Semiahmoo in the 4A game – it was hard to hear yourself think.
It was raucous, it was tense, it was, well, fun.
After two years of sports being cancelled outright due to COVID-19 or, at best, playing to limited-capacity audiences, I’d forgotten what that was like.
And yet, there I was, feeling strange.
The province’s mask mandate had been lifted only the day before, after all.
Before Elgin Park’s game, I took a wide-angle photo of the court – with the crowd behind – and posted it on social media. A minute later, a friend texted me.
“Nice super-spreader,” she joked. “I bet it feels weird to be with that many people.”
Another reporter told me he’d taken his mask off, and put it back on again, a dozen times that day, never quite sure what he should do, or what made him feel most comfortable.
I felt the same way, often fumbling around in my pocket for a mask I wasn’t sure I wanted to wear in the first place, but also not sure I wanted to ditch completely.
Remember all that talk about how these measures were the ‘new normal’? Well, eventually, the ‘new’ goes away, and normal is all that’s left.
And when the time comes, you can trick yourself into thinking you’re breaking a rule when people can see the bottom half of your face.
In the end, I mostly went without – putting it on only to move through crowded hallways or throngs of cheering fans rushing the court after a big win.
But my friend wasn’t wrong. It did feel weird, even as I tried to focus on the positives – the fact that, for a few hours, I got to experience the best part of my job again: live sports. No zoom meetings; no emailed recaps of games that were closed to spectators; no writing stories about why yet another event has been cancelled.
No, this time, the games really happened. I was there to see them.
About 6,000 other people were, too, which feels as strange to type as it was to experience.
It will just take a little getting used to. And though I hope to never need a mask again, I’ll keep it in my pocket, just in case.
Nick Greenizan is a reporter at the Peace Arch News.