Amid coronavirus pandemic, NBA path forward becomes clear: Pause all play

A positive player test left the league little choice but to act swiftly, and decisively

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Archive

Mar 12, 2020 1:38 AM ET

The Jazz-Thunder postponement just before Wednesday's tip left Oklahoma City fans heading for the exits.

In “The Sun Also Rises”, author Ernest Hemingway wrote of a character’s bankruptcy: “It happened gradually, then suddenly.”

It's an apt description of what the NBA experienced on a long and complicated Wednesday, which ended with the league doing what it needed to do, had to do, and was really given no other choice but to do: go on hiatus.

And so the arena doors will not open, the ball won’t bounce, the smells won't waft their way around the concourse and the sneakers won't squeak on court. Never before in its history has the NBA shut down over a public health crisis. Welcome to a world shaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

This is the new abnormal, at least for now. The league indefinitely suspended the 2019-20 season at the conclusion of a six-game Wednesday, the reflex reaction after Jazz center Rudy Gobert reportedly tested positive for the virus just moments before Utah tipped against the Thunder in Oklahoma City. But even before that, commissioner Adam Silver and team owners spent a portion of the day putting the wheels in motion by hashing out emergency plans and contingencies.

Shutting down the game was a last resort. A more agreeable move was to restrict games to players, media and selected support staff -- play on without fans. The Warriors jumped that gun when, at the request of San Francisco government and health officials, they announced Thursday’s home game with Brooklyn would be held in front of empty seats.

Silver and the owners agreed to sleep on it and revisit talks Thursday morning, then a few hours later came the bombshell positive. That was followed by the realization referee Courtney Kirkland -- slated to work the Pelicans-Kings game -- had worked a Jazz game earlier in the week. Wednesday's game was immediately canceled.

Gradually, then suddenly.

 
The NBA makes an unprecedented decision to suspend play indefinitely.

There may be irritation felt by some fans who feel this is over-reacting and are deprived of their nightly entertainment, and certainly a financial pinch felt by workers whose rents depend on games being played. But we’re in the throes of a global pandemic, and in the big picture, these kid’s games and temporary escapes are not terribly important.

The NBA’s priority is to fall in line with other companies and organizations and help contain the contagious virus. In fact, the league’s responsibility is far greater because the games are held before the masses in confined areas. These are events where thousands are in close contact with each other -- fans who shake hands, touch guardrails and seats, sneeze and cough, hand money to cashiers and often exchange DNA with players who give autographs. Players touch the same basketball, give bro hugs and fist pumps; the chance of the infection spreading in those situations among the players themselves is heightened, even if they’re not the biggest at-risk group.

It’s all so fluid and dicey right now because no one -- not even the experts -- seems to bring forth a fool-proof plan or solution on how to fight this and return to the lifestyle we enjoyed before. Precautionary steps are suggested in order to keep a virus from mushrooming. Many events that attract a large gathering have either been canceled or postponed. Hand sanitizer has become liquid gold overnight. As for the NBA, multiple options are on the table. They could, for instance, simply start the playoffs based on the current standings.

The league is not only mindful of its role in helping to contain the outbreak, but also of its public perception. There remain potential liability issues and the desire to protect its own.

The fallout from quiet arenas will be rather significant, obviously. Television will lose programming that it paid billions to broadcast. Teams will lose millions based on the money generated from ticket sales, parking, concessions and merchandise sales. But these teams are run by billionaires so the “loss” is all relative. The real pain will be felt by those standing at the end of the domino effect of a suspended or canceled season. Think of folks from more humble lifestyles who work in the arenas, drive the taxis or hold the TV cameras. They don’t make max money.

 
Mavs owner Mark Cuban is forthright about the looming impact of a hiatus.

It just shows how the game has such a widespread impact on thousands of people, those at the top of the chain (players, owners), those at the other end and the mass in the middle. On game night, everyone comes together, united by the love of the game, the chance to make money and the opportunity to just congregate and temporarily veer away from the souls who aren’t part of the basketball ecosystem.

These are the times to count blessings and realize how lucky we are to have something in common; sometimes you don’t miss such good fortune until it’s taken away from you.

And now, the calendar watch begins. How long will this last? Well, that answer should come swiftly, maybe even before the weekend, if Silver and the owners believe the regular season can’t be salvaged. Then it’s all about saving the playoffs ... Or maybe not.

It’s really anyone’s guess right now, because the league’s biggest nightmare already happened: At least one player became infected and he had contact with other players and coaches and reporters and who knows whomever else. At that point, there was no choice.

“These are scary times,” said Hornets coach James Borrego.

More to the point, these times are unsettled. There’s no blueprint on how to proceed during a health crisis where many who carry the virus are unknown. Everything is unprecedented. Therefore, the NBA resorted to the best way to stop any potential spread on its watch, and it was the right decision at the right time.

For now, the ball doesn’t make a sound. We may not see basketball in NBA arenas again until everyone can get tested as quickly as Rudy Gobert.


Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him  here, find his archive here  and follow him on  Twitter .

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