Jason Vela has attended the UIL Boys Basketball Tournament at least 20 times in his life, but this year’s occasion was a little bit more special.
For years, Vela and his son Beau, who played for Splendora and graduated in 2018, would go to the tournament.
But this year, Vela was bringing his 16-year-old son Joey, a sophomore at Kingwood High School, for the first time along with Joey’s buddy, Kade.
The Splendora High School basketball coach’s long streak of going to games came to an end last year when he was in a wedding.
It’s safe to say, the UIL state tournament is something Vela, who just completed his 19th season coaching the Wildcats, looks forward to every year.
“My oldest son has gone with me for years and years,” Vela said in a phone interview Friday morning. “Now he’s in college on spring break. My youngest son brought his friend and he had just never gone to it before so he wanted to go.”
Despite how it turned out, they enjoyed what ended up be a shortened trip.
“We ended up having a great day and it was a lot of fun,” Vela said.
The trio set out early Thursday morning to San Antonio knowing that they weren’t going to get there in time for the morning session, but the goal was to have lunch and get into the Alamodome to see the Class 3A semifinals.
“We loaded up Thursday morning and we knew we were going to miss the first two games,” Vela said. “Our plan was to get there at lunch, get checked into the hotel and definitely make the 1:30 game.”
With the many concerns of the coronavirus starting to affect the sports world the night before — when the NBA suspended its season after the diagnosis of Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert — the dominoes continued to fall Thursday morning. But for the time being, the UIL boys basketball games would go on, but with a limited audience.
The UIL released information that the only spectators that were going to be allowed in the Alamodome was ones who had pre-purchased tickets. No walk-up ticket sales would be granted.
“On the way down to San Antonio, my wife sent me a text and informed me that we’re lucky that we have our tickets already because they are not allowing any additional tickets to be bought,” Vela said. “So that didn’t affect us in particular, but it probably did for a lot of people.”
Vela was really looking forward to catching the Class 3A semifinal of Coldspring-Oakhurst against Dallas Madison game. Splendora, a class 4A program, played and defeated Coldspring back in January of 2019 and Vela was excited about watching them play at this level.
“We get in (to San Antonio) and we get to the game about 30 minutes prior and we had great seats,” Vela said. “It’s the first time for my son and his friend, it was their first experience (at the state tournament). Our seats were on the floor and it was unbelievable.”
While the Class 1A semifinals were being played in the morning, the dominoes of the national sports landscape kept tipping over. All the major NCAA men’s basketball tournaments were canceling just as games were about to tip-off (the Big East canceled at halftime after starting the first game between Creighton and St. John's). The NHL, MLB and MLS suspended their seasons. Later the XFL did and soon the PGA and NASCAR were suspended on Friday.
Most people were feeling the worst was almost expected when it came to all sports with big public gatherings.
The Coldspring game tipped off and Vela and the boys were enjoying the experience of seats right on the baseline.
“We were having a great experience,” Vela said. “The crowd was still decent, even though it was probably a little less than normal. Coldspring had a great crowd that traveled down to support their team.”
By halftime, the announcement that people were hoping wouldn’t come flashed up on the big screen and a PA announcement was made.
After the second Class 3A semifinal at 3 p.m., the tournament would be suspended indefinitely.
“While they were in at halftime, that was the first time that they announced inside the Alamodome, they announced that after the 3A session, the tournament would be suspended until further notice,” Vela said. “For us, that meant we were going to watch the second half of the Coldspring-Madison game and then San Antonio Cole-Peaster, which was the next game of the session.”
As a coach and a parent, Vela understood the decision.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “But obviously the health officials in San Antonio and the UIL itself and everyone else involved is making that decision based on health and well-being of not only the communities and coaches, but the student athletes.”
Although the Alamodome didn’t have as many in attendance due to walk-up tickets sales being barred, the mood was still festive, according to Vela. Vela stayed off his phone as much as possible to enjoy the day with his son and didn’t hear about the biggest hat dropping in the NCAA Tournament canceling until later in the afternoon.
“I was having such a good time there and enjoying the basketball and enjoying time with my son that it started coming through at the time,” Vela said. “I personally didn’t hear about the (NCAA Tournament) being canceled until we were at those games.”
Vela said he normally would stay and watch all three days of the tournament. But this year, they were going to head home after Friday’s contest as Vela was going to watch his daughter Jenna, Joey’s twin sister, at her Kingwood High School track meet on Saturday.
They had to settle for just the pair of games.
“As a fan, it was just disappointing,” Vela said. “We had just got there and watched two basketball games. We realized that there were going to be no more basketball games this week. So we got out of our hotel and were able to do that fortunately. We drove back home that night.”
The UIL has not canceled the rest of the tournament. It’s still under suspension and the hope for the participating schools is action can possibly pick up later. Currently, the UIL has suspended all games and activities through March 29. That announcement was made Friday afternoon. At each individual school or team’s discretion, practices can occur starting March 23.
“You can’t help as a coach to think about the players, the coaches, families,” Vela said of how special it is to make it to the state tournament. “All the people who have put in so much time and so much work to get there. Some of them, it may be for the first time and only time ever. To have that not take place is just unfortunate and very sad in my opinion.”