PARADISE ISLAND – Kimani Lawrence and his teammates in the state of Arizona were eager to take it all in as they arrived for a men’s basketball tournament, which was one of the countless things disrupted over the past 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic .
Just to be here is a big deal, both for the eight teams in this week’s prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis and for a sport that has built a tradition of playing early season games outside of the U.S. mainland.
It is an important step with the return of numerous events in this Caribbean country of about 700 islands to the Cancun Challenge in Mexico and the Paradise Jam in the US Virgin Islands.
“A year ago, I didn’t think we could ever get back here so quickly,” said Lawrence, whose team has faced multiple hiatuses and cancellations due to the pandemic.
Now players at Atlantis are going down the waterslides, relaxing at the resort’s many pools and heading to restaurants a year after players were largely locked up in hotel rooms — separated from each other at meals, even — on coastal road trips and during bubbles NCAA tournaments in Indiana and Texas.
“Last year there were a lot of kids who moved because they were isolated and depressed,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “And they were just students, wanted to go to class, wanted to socialize, wanted to travel and play for fans.
“So we survived. And now, hopefully this year, we are in a much more normal situation and the student-athletes will benefit the most.”
The Battle 4 Atlantis kicks off Wednesday with sixth-ranked and reigning National Champion Baylor, Pearl’s 19th-ranked Tigers and No. 22 Connecticut. It returns from a hiatus in 2020 for its 10th edition, kicking off two days after the inaugural Women’s Battle 4 Atlantis got its hyped 1-vs-2 title match-up between South Carolina and UConn.
There are also events at the nearby Baha Mar resort in Nassau, headlined by the Women’s No. 2 Maryland, No. 4 Indiana, No. 5 North Carolina State and No. 7 Stanford competitions. And No. 9 Arizona starts playing Thanksgiving Day in the ladies’ Paradise Jam.
“It’s an incredible team bonding experience,” Bears coach Scott Drew told AP. “There’s something to be said when you leave the United States and you’re in the Bahamas or wherever… you grow closer, you spend more time together. But of course you experience things that you normally do not experience.”
Still, things aren’t quite back to normal. The Maui Invitational in Hawaii offers a reminder; that long-standing tournament is in Las Vegas this week, after it was held last year in Asheville, North Carolina, amid ongoing concerns about COVID-19.
Walker Kessler was a freshman at UNC last year when Tar Heels’ Maui trip became an instate trip to the mountains. Now he’s here in the Bahamas on a transfer from Auburn.
“Going to this trip was so much fun: being able to fly, go with your teammates and stay in the hotel, and just be in a place like this and a tournament like this,” Kessler said, adding, “We’re super, super excited for some normality for sure.”
Visitors entering the Bahamas were required to present negative COVID-19 tests, and teams wear masks inside the Atlantis resort. Lea Miller-Tooley, founder and director of the Atlantis tournaments, said she stayed in direct contact with the 16 head coaches for the two tournaments regarding safety protocols for restarting one event and launching another.
That also included involving Atlantis president and general manager Audrey Oswell, who said there was “absolute confidence in the game,” even as she admitted she felt anxious.
Utilities? Miller-Tooley said people are “excited to get their passports stamped”.
“There’s a risk in everything, but so far the reward outweighs the risk,” Miller-Tooley said. “We felt and still have, with the men’s teams arriving this week, we are very confident in the protocols in place and everything we have done to ensure safety and planning.”
The completion of the women’s tournament offered, to some extent, the first glimpses of normalcy.
Oklahoma’s team swam with dolphins. No. 15 Oregon players caught some rays in one of the many pools on the resort grounds. Teams gathered in the lobby of their hotel tower to walk to the Imperial Arena, past masked resort guests on the store-lined route to practices and games.
Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley, whose top team won the title, was walking her dog Champ through the marina and sheepishly admitted she’d run some errands. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said he wouldn’t hesitate to “take advantage of all their hospitality” because of his vaccinated status. And there was a big-game buzz in the arena for the Gamecocks-Huskies title tilt.
The hope is that this is just the beginning of a full recovery from the pandemic.
“There’s no reason to come to the Bahamas if you’re not going to enjoy the Bahamas,” Ducks forward Sedona Prince told the AP. “So we’ve been able to do things and get out there and be a little bit as a team, and take pictures and videos and memories. … They’ve put the tournament here for players and family and coaches to enjoy. So yes, we did.”
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