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Ralph Walter: The past week has turned into the sports world’s greatest ‘What-If’

Back in 2018, we launched a series called “The Great What-If,” stories that explored alternate endings to real-life sporting events: What if the SuperSonics had stayed in Seattle? What if the Spokane Indians had remained a Triple-A farm team?

This past week, the 2020 sports season became the greatest “What-if” of all. And unfortunately, the most painful.

For the athletes. For the coaches. For the fans.

For all of us.

We’ll never know what might have happened if the Gonzaga men’s and women’s basketball teams had received a chance to play in front of the hometown fans.

For the men, among the favorites for a national championship, playing in Spokane might have provided the springboard needed to launch the Zags toward that elusive title.

What if the Eastern Washington men’s basketball team, on the verge of just its third NCAA trip, earned a shot at being America’s next Cinderella? Or if the Idaho women could have returned to the NCAAs for the fifth time?

The Whitworth men were set to play in the Sweet 16 of the Division III tournament and seemed to be peaking at the perfect time.

And the effects of coronavirus cancellations are not just limited to college basketball.

The Spokane Chiefs were the hottest team in junior hockey over the past month or so and had legitimate Memorial Cup dreams.

The Spokane Shock and arena football were set to relaunch March 22.

The High School Showcase, featuring the area’s best high school boys and girls basketball players, was set to tip off Tuesday at Lewis and Clark High School.

Spring sports, from high schools to college, were revving up as well.

Now, it’s all just a blur.

Sports, always such a wonderful distraction from the realities of everyday life, have been shuttered until further notice.

It’s a safe, smart decision not to play the games, but it still hurts.

Athletes of all ages, from all backgrounds, now wonder “What If?”

By not being able to tell these stories, we feel a sliver of the same regret here at The Spokesman-Review.

Our sports department, which learned a month ago we had earned Top 10 awards for both our daily and Sunday sections and an honorable mention for our football section in the annual Associated Press Sports Editors contest, was eager to show off more stunning work in the coming weeks.

Columnist John Blanchette was working on a Gonzaga basketball story that examined how teams hosting NCAA Tournament games in their hometowns have fared over the years. Jim Meehan was piecing together a deep look through the years at Gonzaga’s history at the Spokane Arena.

Local artist Chris Bovey, known for his Spokane-inspired prints, had produced a dazzling piece of artwork that celebrated Gonzaga’s hometown roots. It’s so good we decided to share it with readers now. (Chris Bovey / For the Spokesman-Review)

Jim Allen had begun working on a story looking at possible scenarios for the Gonzaga women, Ryan Collingwood was set to follow EWU basketball and we had Theo Lawson and a handful of other writers and desk staff – including copy editor Chris Derrick and web producer Tyler Grippi – ready to roll for the start of Thursday’s NCAA Tournament games at the Spokane Arena.

Writer Dave Nichols was reaching out to players and coaches of spring sports and preparing for The High School Showcase with deputy sports editor Madison McCord. Collingwood was working on an oral history of the Spokane Shock’s 2008 championship season, and writers Kevin Dudley and Dan Thompson were gearing up for a potentially magical Chiefs run.

Now, like the rest of Spokane, the rest of the world, we wait. And hope.

The Spokesman-Review sports section will be greatly reduced in the coming days to reflect the lack of games. But we will do our best to stay on top of the news, when sports like baseball or the NBA or auto racing might resume.

In the meantime, the newspaper rightfully turns its attention to those most affected. Families touched by the virus. Restaurant owners facing steep declines. Service workers wondering what’s next.

And through it all, we’ll daydream about the day when we can get back to playing games.