UMass basketball keeps tabs on each other during 18-day quarantine

  • UMass point guard Noah Fernandes, center, huddles with teammates, including center Try Mitchell, left, and guard Carl Pierre, right, during practice, Monday at the Mullins Center. CHRIS TUCCI/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 12/10/2020 6:42:34 PM

Every UMass men’s basketball player spent Thanksgiving alone, isolated in a hotel room.

The program paused team activities following a positive COVID-19 test and began quarantining Nov. 17. UMass trainer David Maclutsky was informed of the positive test first, and he called head coach Matt McCall. The Minutemen were 15 minutes from starting practice when McCall was alerted. The coaching staff spaced their players out in the gym and informed them of the situation and the protocols they’d need to follow.

The players moved from their dorms to “quarantine housing” in either the Hotel UMass or Lincoln Apartments. McCall and other staff members isolated in their homes. They stayed there and couldn’t gather until practice restarted on Saturday, 18 days later.

“Look at the quarantine we had to go through,” McCall said. “It was during Thanksgiving when normally you’re sitting around a table as a team, as a family. We weren’t able to do that.”

The Minutemen stayed in contact with regular Zoom meetings and individual check-ins on the players. McCall made monitoring the squad’s mental health a priority.

“Our guys handled it as well as they possibly could. It was not easy,” McCall said. “Even as a coach, you don’t handle it as well as they do because you’re that concerned and just want to make sure that mentally they’re doing OK.”

The players occupied themselves with TV, movies and reading. The fall semester was winding down, so many of them had to stay focused academically. College basketball kicked off its season in late November. The Minutemen were supposed to be part of the opening festivities at Mohegan Sun’s “Bubbleville” before their shutdown. Rather than playing, they watched.

“A lot of nights I spent flipping between channels watching games. Sitting, watching waiting, thinking, ‘soon it’s gonna be us,’” UMass senior Carl Pierre said. “Of course it was a little frustrating, we were in there a long time not being able to do anything but sit and wait.”

Attending prep school at least gave many of the Minutemen an idea on how to pass the time with little to do. Eleven players spent time at a private school, many in New England.

“If you really think about it, it’s really similar. There’s your team, basketball and education and that’s all you’ve got to work with. That’s what you’re focusing on,” UMass sophomore Tre Mitchell said. “A lot of guys are so used to that coming from prep it’s easy to communicate with your teammates knowing you have the relationship with them and they’re willing to openly communicate how they feel.”

McCall passed the isolation period in his study, just off the laundry room. Occasionally, his wife Allison would let their daughters Brooklyn and Kylie wave at him through the door with masks on.

“It was a challenge for me and for my kids, no question. They want to know why they can’t run up and give me a hug,” he said. “I enjoy putting my kids to bed at night, that time with them sitting around the dinner table.”

He watched film in isolation, took in live basketball and read until three negative tests let him move freely throughout the house. During the meetings and individual checks, McCall worked with his staff to navigate some of the stigmas around mental health awareness and macho culture in sports.

“We talk about it all the time: You’ve got to be the tougher team, you’ve got to fight through, you’ve got to push through. We’re not doing that,” he said. “You wake up in the morning and you don’t feel good, you’ve got to call the trainer and tell them. They have to understand that you care for them and their health and safety is the most important thing.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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