The NBA certainly could not have foreseen two months ago that its insistence on beginning the 2020-21 season in December, rather than waiting until sometime early in 2021, would coincide with the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic creasing the country.
The NBA was not and is not responsible for decisions made that have resulted in, this week, our nation having the equivalent death rate of Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, every day.
Every. Single. Day.
Try to comprehend that amount of daily death, and how we have arrived at this juncture.
But here we are, the NBA once again trying to defeat the odds while maintaining a sense of normalcy in times far from normal. The league is already playing a full slate of preseason games to prepare for the December 22nd opening night of the regular season. That includes a scheduled game in Portland — where the Trail Blazers, just a week ago, shut down their practice facility after numerous positive COVID-19 tests within the organization.
The December 22nd start, no longer inside the Orlando bubble, feels too soon and an extreme risk.
A reasonable but not fatal delay, still giving the league hope of completing a 2020-21 season – maybe a month, maybe six weeks – from now feels so much more responsible.
It was what the NBA did in the spring, in being the first big sports league to shut down, after a positive test for Utah center Rudy Gobert was confirmed. It cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue, but it was the right thing to do. So would pushing the start of next season into calendar 2021.
It wouldn’t be a guarantee that you’d get a full season in. But it would serve the dual purpose of giving the league more time for a potential vaccine to be introduced to the public – and, potentially, give you more of a chance to get fans in your building for more games – while not subjecting the league and teams to possible postponements now, during the worst of the virus’ national spread. Every week you have to postpone now is two or three games you’ll have to make up later.
“In March,” one team executive lamented of the NBA this week, “you took the lead in the sports world. You said ‘we’re shutting down,’ for everyone’s safety. It was serious then. It’s worse now.”
This was not, of course, a unilateral decision. The players’ union had to agree. But when one side says ‘do this or you’re out $500 million in collective salaries next season,’ it becomes a pretty quick negotiation.
“For myself, I wanted to play,” 76ers All-Star big man Joel Embiid said via Zoom on Thursday. “One of the main reasons, also, is because we had a bad year this year. I wanted to get back to playing and accomplish what I want to accomplish, which is to win a championship. So last year was painful. That was the main thing for me. … There’s a lot of stuff that goes into (the decision). Obviously, the pandemic has affected a lot of lives and a lot of people. So I think sports means a lot when it comes to everybody in the whole world.”
There was skepticism in the spring that the NBA could pull off a 22-team end-of-season/playoffs combo platter at Disney World, in a state where COVID-19 cases were raging when play resumed. But multiple leagues – the NBA, the NHL, the WNBA, the NWSL – showed that with massive repetition of the wear-a-mask/keep social distancing message, a controllable geographic footprint, a limited schedule and near-total buy-in from the players, that a bubble could, more or less, hold.
Each of those leagues were able to complete or start its season without significant disruption to its schedules, or many cringe-worthy headlines.
But then came baseball.
Then the NFL.
Then College Football and Basketball.
Each of the leagues who have attempted to play a season outside of a bubble saw major set backs. College basketball is a ridiculous spectacle with teams literally playing whoever can field a team on a given day and show up. There’s no scheduling, no planning, just barnstorming to the next place where there are 12 available bodies.
When Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski says “Hey, maybe we need to think about what we’re doing here,” you know things are out of hand.
That is the dark winding road the NBA is about to embark on from now until the summer.
Traveling across the country. Expecting players to isolate inside hotel rooms, hoping they don’t pull a James Harden and hit up every strip club. Mandated mask wearing both on the bench and during practices. Elderly coaches at risk. Positive tests postponing games. Facilities shut down for 10 days.
Like the other leagues and sports, the NBA wants to play as soon as possible, in large part, because of money.
It’s the same reason the league had to finish last season at Disney World. But at least then, a) the regular season was almost over, b) not every team in the league was invited to the bubble, c) there was zero plane travel, zero buses, zero hotels, zero groupies allowed inside the grounds.
And even that pristine arrangement almost came flying apart in August, when LeBron James and his Lakers teammates and Pat Beverley and his Clippers teammates were about seven seconds from saying ‘to hell with all of this; we’re out.’
That was eight regular-season games, followed by two months of playoffs. And it almost didn’t work.
The NBA is now trying to play 72 regular-season games, followed by the playoffs.
No sport has tried to play this many games since the pandemic began – and tried to start its season as the absolute worst carnage from COVID-19 is coming due across the country, forcing cities to shut down again.
Currently, only five NBA teams – Utah, New Orleans, Orlando, Houston and Memphis – are continuing with plans to have at least some fans in arenas to start the season. In just about every other market it is against state guidelines.
The league is taking, according to sources who’ve heard its discussions with its teams, college and pro football’s position – essentially, we’re going to push through this season, come hell or high water.
Football is doing so despite dozens of teenagers getting infected, and numerous college games being canceled. The NFL forges on, despite players being pulled off the field moments before games because of positive tests, or the folly of a team literally not having a quarterback available to play a game. It’s the NFL; it’s incapable of being shamed.
We will, the NBA says, live with the scorn.
But just because it can doesn’t mean it should.
To be as blunt as is uncomfortable: what if a 60-plus-year-old coach, or referee, or wait staffer at a hotel, gets sick and dies because they were working at a game, or helping a team checking into its hotel, in a state whose COVID numbers are currently spiraling out of control? What is “acceptable” loss when it comes to actual life or death?
This is not to say that the NBA is being careless, or reckless, with the health of its team’s players, coaches or staff. It is not. In fact they are as prepared as any other sports league or entity in the world. The league sent out a 150 page memo detailing how to handle any possible situation one can think of. The rules are similar to those passed along in the NBA bubble, only intensified.
“The virus is still out there,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said on a Zoom. “You have to respect it. But we have an opportunity to continue our business.”
Teams will be split into “tiers” this season, with players, coaches and all but a handful of staffers in “Tier 1.”
“Tier 2” is non-coaching and basketball operations staff, sports science, mental health and wellness, most PR and social media personnel, team security and senior basketball executives.
“Tier 3” covers facility personnel and security.
The three tiers are to have as little physical contact with one another as possible. Teams need to have “Protocol Compliance Officers” (PCOs) and “Health and Safety Points of Contact” (POCs). Facemask Enforcement Officer is an actual NBA job this year.
“Everybody needs to be responsible, wear a mask, not to go to the crowd of people, and try to make everybody else safe,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said on a Zoom last week. “Hopefully this vaccine’s going to work and we can go back to normal.”
Teams are required to have significant PPE stock at their practice sites, including N95 masks, full face shields and FDA-approved gowns and medical-grade gloves. Players can’t take Uber, Lyft or the subway to practices, and must enter and leave the facilities alone. There is a six-step process to clean and disinfect every basketball after every practice.
The NBA is trying to account for every and any possible event that could throw them off schedule, including a week off mid season to play any making up games if need be.
They are being responsible with their irresponsible decision to start up their season amid the height of a pandemic that shut their season down 9 months earlier.
I just wonder if jumping through all these hoops, putting countless people at risk like the NFL and NCAA, is worth it.
It’s very un-NBA like.