Only two commissioners in major American professional sports still have the same position that they did when the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded: Gary Bettman of the NHL, and Don Garber of MLS, who was two years into his tenure when he confronted a tragedy that had professional and personal connections.
Navigating through the day and its aftermath would ultimately provide Garber and the upstart league the confidence that it could manage through any future hardship, like the current COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued two MLS seasons.
“I think about that time as one of the more traumatic periods that I’ve had as commissioner of MLS,” says Garber.
That Tuesday morning, the 43-year-old Garber drove into the old MLS offices at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue from his then home in Montclair, N.J. Before reaching the Lincoln Tunnel, Garber could see a fire brewing in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Like some, he initially thought that it was a small plane and possibly an accident.
His first action was to call his brother, Mitch, a lawyer who worked on John Street in lower Manhattan. By the time Garber reached the league’s headquarters, the South Tower had been hit by United Airlines Flight 175 at 9:03 a.m. ET.
“I was listening to the news on the radio the whole time as I drove in, just horrified by what I was hearing,” said Garber, who huddled with a few colleagues around a television and watched as the two towers collapsed before 10:30 a.m.
Based on the proximity of Mitch’s office to the World Trade Center, he was evacuated from the downtown area, making his way uptown to Don’s office and walking inside MLS headquarters covered with dust and soot.
As the day unfolded, Garber and his colleagues checked in on the status of friends, family and colleagues. He devoted part of his day to waiting in line for an hour near the Citigroup Center building in Midtown to donate blood before he and others were ultimately turned away. With traffic shut down to New Jersey, Garber and his brother spent the night at the MLS offices.
Two days later, MLS decided to cancel the 10 remaining regular-season games and head directly into the postseason, which ended with the San Jose Earthquakes defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 on Oct. 21, 2001, at the MLS Cup in Columbus. At that event, MLS honored the family of Sergio Villanueva, a police officer with NYPD before transitioning to FDNY as a firefighter when he died at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
“At the MLS Cup Gala, I remember seeing our owners Phil Anschutz, Robert Kraft and Lamar Hunt very emotionally talking to Sergio’s wife and us honoring him and the FDNY. I think about that moment often,” Garber said. “Whether it’s been 9/11, the challenges with reorganization of MLS in the early 2000s, the financial crisis or the pandemic, there’s the opportunity for people to really come together during the most difficult times. And I know that the entire MLS family was able to do that during the pandemic.”