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Anjay Cortez

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Photo: Courtesy of Anjay Cortez

College Basketball Amid a Pandemic

By Anjay Cortez, as told to Melba Newsome

For years I dreamed about what it would be like to play my first Division I college basketball game at an HBCU. In some ways, the Alabama A&M season opener, an away game against a small Christian university about 100 miles south, didn’t disappoint. I played 24 minutes, scored seven points and had four rebounds in our 78-76 win.

Some things were different than I imagined, though. The season lacks the tradition and a sense of electricity. Instead of raucous, standing-room-only crowds, the few attendees were scattered across a sea of mostly empty bleachers while our voices echoed throughout the building. This is what team sports has become in the age of the coronavirus. It was either this or nothing, and I didn’t hesitate to choose this.

I started high school at Philip O. Berry in West Charlotte but transferred to United Faith Christian Academy, a private school in south Charlotte, because I believed that, as a 6’8” small forward, I could get to the next level academically and athletically.

Season of uncertainty

I already had committed to play for the Bulldogs when the lockdowns began, but everything was so uncertain; I wasn’t sure if it would happen. If March Madness was cancelled and the NBA season was put on hiatus, where did that leave a little college basketball program like mine? Was my scholarship in jeopardy? If the season got canceled, I would lose a year of athletic eligibility. Nonetheless, I planned to use that time to make my game better, smarter and stronger.

The pandemic forced the university to make a lot of changes. I could see right away that this experience would be nothing like the vibe I got when I went to homecoming at North Carolina A&T. Instead of the usual 6,000 students on campus, there are maybe half that many. A lot of students chose to do remote learning from home while others took a gap year.

Every student needed a Covid test and temperature check when we arrived for the fall semester. We had to bring at least three face coverings — in grey, maroon or black — that we were required to wear 24/7.

Only students who lived in the residence halls and campus apartments had access, and we weren’t allowed to visit each other’s rooms. There was an 11 p.m. curfew and, to maintain social distancing, no more than 10 people could gather in the common areas.

No regrets

The basketball team consists of six freshmen, six sophomores and two juniors. The mentally and physically grueling workouts are a lot to go through, but this is what it takes to play at this level, so I don’t complain.

I had hoped that the spring would bring a return to normalcy and I could come home to Charlotte for a weekend, but the recent surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations has things moving in the wrong direction. Even the traditional in-person fall 2020 commencement ceremony has been cancelled. Now, I wonder if we’ll still be able to play ball in the spring.

Despite all the ups-and-downs, I have no regrets about the choices I’ve made. In some way, this has turned out to be better for me because I have a better chance to be seen by more scouts and recruiters. Instead of having to fly or drive to see a player, the scouts can just turn on the TV and live stream any game anywhere in the country. I think they’re watching, and I’m doing everything I can to stand out.

To our readers: We’ve long known about Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on Black communities across America. At QCity Metro, our mission dictates that we document that reality. But even amidst a pandemic, we also find stories of hope, inspiration and perseverance. This series is dedicated to telling those stories.

Our “Portraits of Perseverance” series is funded by the Facebook Journalism Project and sponsored locally by OrthoCarolina. To share your Covid story, email editor@qcitymetro.com with the word “Portraits” in the subject line.

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