Reality seeps in: Basketball is starting, and the virus is still here
By Marc Stein
July is supposed to be a magical month in the NBA. The mere mention of it evokes images of the feast known as free agency that, as we all understand by now, means as much (or more) to some fans as the games themselves.
The calendar flipped Wednesday, but this is 2020, which immediately tells you that the coming month will be unlike any previous July in league history — and presumably no great source of anticipation.
The mood of the moment was perhaps best capsulized by Fred VanVleet, whose Toronto Raptors have already convened in Florida to prepare for the 22-team restart of the NBA season at Walt Disney World at the end of July.
“It sounded good a month or two ago,” VanVleet said on a Monday conference call, referring to the NBA’s plans to reboot the 2019-20 season in a contained environment on the Disney campus.
“Not so much right before we got ready to leave,” he added.
The Raptors came together last week at Florida Gulf Coast University because Canada’s mandatory 14-day quarantine rule for anyone who enters the country made it impossible for the NBA’s reigning champions to begin their Disney World preparations in their own practice gym. The rest of the 22 teams are scheduled to arrive next week.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s team president, have repeatedly insisted that their team has been greeted by a safe environment at the hotel in Fort Myers, Fla., where they — and no one else — are staying until they can relocate to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando next week.
But the vibe is far different in Brooklyn, where two prominent Nets players — Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan — revealed late Monday that they had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The disclosures from Dinwiddie and Jordan came one day after a Nets veteran, Wilson Chandler, said he was opting out of the restart for family reasons and over coronavirus concerns. The Nets have thus emerged as the NBA’s first known test case of a reunited team that must deal with the psychological effects, on top of all the health implications, of an outbreak in their camp.
How will teammates, coaches and team staffers react to the news that multiple players have to be quarantined after testing positive? As we’ve been discussing for months now, I’ve long believed that the answer to that question could only be ascertained in real time, when the situation actually materialized.
The surprise: The NBA didn’t even make it to the bubble before a team had to face it.
General manager Sean Marks told reporters Wednesday that the team was still committed to participating in the restart. Yet you can safely presume that the Nets never imagined marking the anniversary of the free-agent commitments they officially received from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on June 30, 2019 — maybe the greatest day in franchise history — in such downbeat fashion.
As recently as Friday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, expressed relief on a call with reporters after the league announced that only 16 of the 302 players tested by their teams June 23 had positive results. Just a few days later, given the Nets’ plight and the Denver Nuggets’ decision to close their practice facility after multiple positive coronavirus tests among unnamed members of their planned Florida traveling party, anxiety is on the rebound. Big time.
Positive tests were not a surprise. The two-week stay for teams in their home markets before reporting to Florida, after all, was designed in hopes of isolating as many of those positive cases as possible before anyone arrived at the Disney complex. Yet it is only now, as the possibility of multiple positive tests for any given team has become a reality, that players and other restart participants can gauge how comfortable they are with the enormity of the challenge.
Roberts insisted last Friday that the NBA and the players’ union have done “the best we can do to mitigate the risk of an infection on our players and our teams and our staffs.”
“If I didn’t feel that, I would be recommending to Chris and to the players to stay home,” Roberts said, mentioning the union president, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul. “I feel that, and so I can sleep at night.”
The resolve of an entire league is nonetheless being tested daily. July may typically be a magical time in the NBA, and Disney World is certainly supposed to be a magical place, but as VanVleet so aptly put it during Monday’s conference call: “That’s been 2020 for us.”
T.O. Souryal, a former president of the NBA Physicians Association who spent 22 years as the Dallas Mavericks’ team doctor, offered a sobering reminder in a chat we had Sunday.
“Never forget that we are in the midst of a global pandemic where nearly 125,000 Americans have lost their lives so far,” Souryal said. The death toll has now eclipsed 126,000 in the U.S. “Until we have a functioning vaccine or treatment, there are no good options for a return to normal — sports or otherwise.
“On the surface, the concept of an ‘isolation bubble’ seems to be a good option for the NBA,” Souryal continued. “Frankly, it’s probably the only option. But as the numbers of coronavirus cases in Florida rise, so does the risk of infections penetrating that bubble. Then the questions come up: How many positive cases can one team tolerate before being uncompetitive? How many infections can the league tolerate before they are forced to stop play again? Can the league accept just one hospitalization or, God forbid, a death? “For this population of NBA athletes, the medical risk is very low, but they can infect others who may be much more vulnerable. This is a dangerous virus that can kill. And as long as death is on the table, then the stakes are very high — almost unacceptable, in my opinion.
“Adam Silver and those surrounding him are well aware of the stakes. Based on my experience with NBA administrators, I have confidence that they will do the right thing.”