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Mark Cuban looks back on his viral moment of shock the night the world changed

The Dallas Mavericks owner's viral moment embodied the shock of many Americans as the seriousness of COVID-19 hit home a year ago.
Mark Cuban
In March 2020, Mark Cuban's televised reaction to the news the NBA season had been suspended reflected what many were feeling as the pandemic arrived in the U.S. "It was like, 'You’re gonna be a meme for the rest of your life,'" Cuban said. TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Mark Cuban embodied the shock spreading across America a year ago when he was seen on ESPN staring in disbelief at a text message he had just received from the NBA.

The Dallas Mavericks owner and "Shark Tank" star had just been informed in the middle of a game against the Denver Nuggets that one of the world's most popular sports leagues was abruptly suspending the season due to the growing coronavirus threat.

It was the moment when a singular thought rippled through much of the country: The virus is here, and it's serious.

"I was stunned," Cuban told TODAY as he looked back on that night. "I literally was stunned. I still remember the exact seat, the exact spot where I was."

Cuban's reaction, which went viral on social media, was part of a cascading effect that made March 11, 2020, feel like the official day the pandemic began in America.

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It began earlier in the day when the World Health Organization declared the illness a global pandemic. The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted nearly 1,500 points, followed by President Donald Trump announcing a travel ban from Europe to the U.S. in an address from the Oval Office.

Cuban's reaction came right around the time news broke that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, which factored heavily in the league's decision to suspend the season.

Then came another nerve-rattling announcement: Oscar winner Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, shared they had tested positive for COVID-19.

The virus went from seeming like it was nowhere to everywhere. It had morphed from a faraway problem in China to an immediate threat rapidly spreading across the U.S., which had more than 1,000 reported cases at the time.

Cuban in the stands during a game against the Denver Nuggets on March 11, 2020, reacting to news that the NBA season had been suspended. YouTube

"We had a team meeting in the locker room before the game, and some players asked me if the season might get postponed, and I said there's a 5 to 10% chance," Cuban said. "And I said, 'But we’ll really know if we’re walking out into the arena and there’s nobody there because everybody’s afraid, chances are it’s gonna go bad.'

"We walked out, and the place was packed, not any empty seat. And I thought, 'Okay, maybe the wisdom of the crowd, maybe they know something that I don’t."

After getting the stunning text message from the NBA, Cuban, 62, got up from his seat and informed the officials who were doing the game.

"It seemed more like out of a movie than reality," he told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi on the broadcast during the fourth quarter of the game.

As he delivered his comments, an NBA game was going on only a few feet away from him, and a crowd of nearly 20,000 people was sitting shoulder to shoulder. The concept of social distancing was not yet a public health mandate.

"You just don’t know," Cuban said. "There’s just no context whatsoever. If we knew then what we know now, we never would’ve been in the arena in the first place. It was just trying to process all of it and trying to figure out what comes next."

Cuban then went to the team's interview room after the game to speak to the media.

"In hindsight it’s crazy because there are people are packed in the interview room," he said. "Nobody had a mask. I just tried to make the point that now’s not the time to think about basketball. We’ve got to get a better handle on this, this is issue for science, and we’re gonna do our best to work with NBA, which will work with best epidemiologists in the world and try to get a handle on this."

He also saw how the video of his reaction went viral as millions of people shared his incredulity.

"It was like, 'You’re gonna be a meme for the rest of your life,'" he said.

The Utah Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies on August 5, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, in an empty arena during the NBA's "bubble season." Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images

The fear of the unknown had permeated the atmosphere in the arena. How does the virus spread? Is it spreading among us right now?

"It was, what does this truly mean?" he said. "If we’re shutting down the NBA season, it’s not like someone just twisted an ankle. It means there’s a real threat here, and so I was trying to get my arms around how big a threat this is."

Cuban, who is a father of children ages 17, 14, and 11, immediately worried about his family.

"I just kept thinking, 'How do I tell my kids, and how do I keep them safe?'" he said.

He also still had a franchise to run.

"In the interim, I thought I’ll try to make sure we take care of our employees from a financial and from a safety perspective, because I don’t want people thinking that if they didn’t get paid, they couldn’t pay their bills," he said.

The NBA ultimately resumed its season in a bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Twenty-two teams returned in July to finish out the regular season and playoffs. The games were played in front of no fans and went off without any cancellations, culminating in the Los Angeles Lakers winning the title in a surreal scene.

Only a few months after the season ended in the bubble, the league began its current season on Dec. 22, amid a holiday surge of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country.

When the league first halted the season last year, Cuban did not envision the NBA would be starting its next season with the pandemic still affecting the U.S.

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Like many NBA teams this season, the Mavericks have dealt with postponements due to the league's COVID-19 protocols.

"If you would've asked me (in March 2020) when this thing was going to be over, I did say to some people September (2020) at the latest," Cuban said. "Now obviously I didn't know what the hell I was talking about. You want to say things that are going to make people feel confident rather than scare the hell out of them.

"I was hopeful for sure, and then you saw the federal response (at the start of the pandemic), and that just crushed us."

Cuban is now hopeful the vaccine rollout will return the country to some sense of normalcy by the time the NBA playoffs begin in mid-May. More than 30 million people have been fully vaccinated across the country, with more than 2 million vaccinations currently being administered daily, according to an NBC News tally.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at a press conference ahead of Sunday's All-Star Game that he is hoping to return to full capacity in arenas by next season. Several teams are currently allowing a few thousand fans to attend games.

The Mavericks began allowing 3,900 season-ticket holders to attend their last three games leading up to the recent All-Star break. Cuban is looking forward to the day he can sit in a packed America Airlines Center in Dallas again, knowing that everyone is safe.

"I cannot wait," he said. "It's like walking into a concert with your favorite band, and you haven't seen them and you thought they broke up, but they're back on tour and they played your favorite song."

When that day comes, he will think back to the moment when he found out everything was being shut down. And he'll be fine if the TV cameras find him for another reaction.

"I'll be sitting there with a big smile on the face," he said.