‘Can’t Wait to Be Able to Hold Them’: Players’ Parents in an N.C.A.A. Bubble

SAN ANTONIO — Michelle Bain-Brink took books and a container of macaroons to her daughter, Cameron, a freshman forward for Stanford, the morning after the team rallied against Louisville on Tuesday to advance to the Final Four in the N.C.A.A. women’s basketball tournament. Bain-Brink fully expected to leave the packages with a security guard who would send them to her daughter’s room in the team hotel.

Coincidentally, Cameron Brink was in the lobby at the same time, delivering a bag for the security guard to give to her mother.

From 20 feet away, through the glass doors of the Marriott Rivercenter hotel in downtown San Antonio, the mother and daughter yelled “hello” and “love you” to one another.

It was their first face-to-face conversation in person over the past three months.

“I got quite emotional, because although I’ve seen her from the stands, seeing her like that, unexpectedly, was really touching,” Bain-Brink, who lives in Oregon, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Bain-Brink and her husband, Greg Brink, are happy just to be here in San Antonio, able to attend their daughter’s games again even though they are not allowed direct contact. Stanford, seeking its first national title since 1992, defeated South Carolina, 66-65, in a semifinal on Friday to advance to Sunday’s championship game.

Stanford was especially prepared for the bubblelike environment that players and staff members are enduring at the three-week-long national tournament centered in San Antonio. While the coronavirus pandemic led to restricted attendance at most college competitions, the Stanford team played the bulk of its season as a group of nomads, in strange arenas without fans or family in the stands.

Until the Pac-12 tournament, which Stanford won last month, Cameron Brink’s parents had not watched in person as she competed for the Cardinal, and a year had passed since they last watched one of her games from the stands.

The Cardinal had to spend nine consecutive weeks away from their Northern California campus, because the surrounding Santa Clara County had established coronavirus safety protocols that prohibited contact sports.

Instead the team lived in hotels, periodically practiced in Las Vegas and played “home games” in Santa Cruz, about 45 miles from the Stanford campus.

For parents who had been in the stands for almost every game since their child could hold a basketball, the experience was disorienting.

“You forget what it is like to make eye contact with her as she’s coming off the court going into the locker room,” Bain-Brink said.

When Kiana Williams, a senior on the Stanford team, told her father, Mike Williams, that spectators were going to be allowed at the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, he “unglued” himself from his chair, he said, and called three relatives. He and his wife left the family home in San Antonio to see their daughter in person for the first time since he dropped her off at Stanford in September, with tears in his eyes.

The conference tournament arrangement felt like winning the lottery, Mike Williams said in an interview on Wednesday. Then he learned about the N.C.A.A.’s special plan for this year’s national tournament.

The whole event, rather than just the Final Four, would be held in San Antonio.

“So now we’re on cloud nine, because now we didn’t have to travel and we knew she was going to be here for three weeks,” Williams said. “So we’re just full of joy, just happy. I told the parents in Vegas, since the tournament is going to be in San Antonio, let’s have a big powwow and I’ll barbecue for you.”

He did — the Saturday before Stanford’s game in the round of 16. Such gatherings have enhanced a bond that the parents developed through video calls and WhatsApp messages this season while watching their children from afar.

“It almost made us closer, when we couldn’t even be around each other, which seems backwards, but it’s something that’s very true,” Jaime Hull, the mother of the twins Lexie and Lacie Hull, said in an interview on Wednesday. “You start having that camaraderie together. Like on game days, parents text back and forth that we’re all sitting in our homes, watching the games and rooting everybody on.”

When they are not watching games from the arena stands, the parents are having their own fun in San Antonio.

The Brinks have been dipping into restaurants recommended by the television show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” and the Hulls have been playing a number of card games.

In a hotel about a block away, the Stanford players have found their own diversions — including a Ping-Pong tournament, won by guard Hannah Jump on Friday, just hours before the semifinal.

The parents have said that they can see a benefit of their children having been isolated together. On campus during the pandemic, players lived in apartments near the athletic facilities, limiting whom they would run into in hallways. Stanford was mostly barren, while the few students permitted to be there attended online classes from their residential bubbles.

Leaving campus made the team tighter, Jaime Hull said.

“I see a lot of individuals on teams, and I don’t see a lot of individuals on Stanford,” Jaime Hull said. “They play as a team, they play as a unit. One might be down and someone else might step up, and they are right there having each other’s back.”

Same goes for the parents and the cheering squad. From that 300-person block of friends and family dressed in Cardinal attire — including Russell Wilson, a fairly accomplished football player who is better known in this crowd as the boisterous older brother of guard Anna Wilson — screams of “defense,” “Go Card” and “Ki” accompany the action.

Kiana Williams’s cheering section is upward of 60 people: family, friends and basketball players on the youth team that her father coaches.

The families take their job very seriously. When Stanford was down 12 points at halftime in the round of 8, the parents regrouped.

“I felt like I played in the game at the end of that,” Jaime Hull said. “I was so sweaty, and I think my heel is bruised from pounding the bleacher with my foot.”

Of course, playing near a teammate’s home has other perks. On Wednesday evening, Kiana Williams’s brother’s wife’s grandmother wrapped up two pans of homemade lasagna — one with meat and one without — and gave them to Williams’s mother, LaChelle, who drove them to the team’s hotel. She left the lasagna, cooked with love for the players and staff, with some of the credentialed personnel.

“And it was delicious,” Coach Tara VanDerveer said.

While the parents are excited to see their children to play, they are more thrilled about the prospect of having them come home.

“As soon as the game is over and she gets on the bus and goes to the hotel, we’ll be right behind the bus,” Mike Williams said.

“We have these big chair couches,” Greg Brink said of the family home in Oregon, “so a lot of people can climb on them at one time — a lot of cuddling, the dog is going to be jumping on top of this.”

“Win or lose, I don’t care, I just can’t wait to be able to hold them. But they’re going to fight until the end,” Jaime Hull said, acknowledging that the title game on Sunday could delay the reunions. “So I’ll wait until Monday, if that’s what it takes, or Sunday night. I can make it that long.”

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