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In Indianapolis, America’s sportiest downtown, Selection Sunday felt really, really sad

Hotel lobbies went lifeless with tales of 7 percent occupancy, 9 percent occupancy, with signs that looked useless boasting $6 drafts through March. To walk through the convention center that has spent Marches full of fans coursing through it was to feel the lifelessness, bloodlessness. The four-lane streets named for states had gone desolate. The front of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers play and the Big Ten planned to play, looked blank.

Somehow, all of that and less had become the middle weekend of March in America’s sportiest downtown, amid a state so in love with basketball that it ought to be round. All the sounds had left a downtown that went reimagined and repurposed late last century while hellbent on sporting events, a downtown where somebodies in the planning department back then were doing some thinking, a downtown that resuscitated the ancient practice about which America seemed to forget at some stage: walking. It’s where fans can fill the sidewalks for days of bars and restaurants and games without once plunking into any car seat, but now it had gone inanimate.

Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot for beloved Butler almost went in here. Duke upset 34-0 UNLV here. Wisconsin upset 38-0 Kentucky here. George Mason graced a Final Four here. First titles here went here to Denny Crum, to Mike Krzyzewski, to Billy Donovan. Lone, prized titles here went to Tom Izzo, to Lute Olson. Two more went to Krzyzewski here.

Peyton Manning’s Colts finally overcame Tom Brady’s Patriots here — from a 21-3 deficit, no less. Mario Manningham made a mind-bending sideline catch from Eli Manning. The Pacers and the Knicks and the Pacers and the Heat fought here, in a downtown with room for an NFL stadium, an NBA arena, a Class AAA ballpark, headquarters for USA Gymnastics, USA Track & Field, USA Synchronized Swimming, the Black Coaches Association, the National Federation of State High School Associations and, of course, the NCAA.

A Big Ten tournament had stopped by and had left to try to help make the novel coronavirus leave, too; now, just a trickle of fans in Michigan State gear, or Iowa gear, straggled along, their lodging deals probably inescapable.

A Selection Sunday evening would have made the bars brim.

A Midwest regional would have been here, in two weeks.

Now, through the eerie weekend, one could look through a 32nd-floor window and see Lucas Oil Stadium to the right and Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the middle, and if you stared long enough, they looked kind of sad. Now, a forklift churned down West Maryland Street, hauling away those metal crowd-control barricades. Now, a sole valet stepped outside at Le Méridien Hotel, stood there and looked lonely.

Some bars on a Big Ten title Sunday went ahead and kept their stools up there upside-down on their tables, last call-like. A Big Ten flag outside one bar still fluttered but seemed sad. People told of dining alone in a steakhouse. A good snow doled out big flakes Saturday, but they seemed to frown as they fell.

Big Ten team banners still lurked on lampposts above dead sidewalks next to other banners proclaiming that “March Is On,” relics of a dead tournament. Five Guys felt barren with Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” blaring out into the emptiness. One tavern had one-hit wonder Amii Stewart’s disco hit “Knock On Wood,” another with Frank Sinatra interpreting Stevie Wonder’s “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.”

Starbucks, coffee comfort zone of traveling Americans, shut down, signs on the doors. Cafe Patachou, with a brunch wait time normally, did buzz about two-thirds full. One jogger with earphones went by the state-government complex over there. A sole cyclist passed him while dressed brightly as if to alert cars gone absent. One guy at a sparsely peopled hotel bar noted it’s so easy to park.

Events, events and events, splashy ads and more splashy ads. There’s that banner on the windows for 500 Festival: It sprawls through the calendar and celebrates the Indianapolis 500, only now the 10-miler for April 4 is canceled and the kickoff to May, the mini-marathon, the 5K, who knows? There’s that giant sign at Illinois and Maryland blaring about the Indy Eleven and its USL Championship season opener April 4, only now that’s suspended a month. There’s that pretty Pacers schedule painted above the empty parking lot across from the arena, with its deserved boast, “We Grow Basketball Here,” only it tells of games of March now deferred at best: Golden State, Miami, Cleveland, Phoenix, Houston.

The Indianapolis Symphony Center has closed for March, robbing ears of “The Passion of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony,” “Ruth Reinhardt Leads the Indiana Symphony Orchestra,” “Mendelssohn’s Elijah.”

On a bench in front of the empty little park nestled between hotels and whatnot and named for William H. Hudnut III, the mayor from 1976 to 1992, a statue of Mr. Hudnut (1932-2016) sat on a bench, as if in thought, certainly in solitude. In the downtown into which he and others pumped so much energy, there was no energy, unless you count that man back over there at Washington and Pennsylvania, operating some sort of laser doohickey on an easel.

He said he was an architect, measuring a building for a project.

He seemed like some outlier, maybe even just arrived from the future.

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