Money is at the heart of professional sports, and the costs of the NBA’s three-months-and-counting season hiatus in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic have been and will be enormous.
The players have lost hundreds of millions of dollars, the franchises and the league itself potentially billions. The NBA’s plan to restart and complete the 2019-20 season and playoffs certainly is an effort to stem that bleeding, preserving as much value as possible for this season as well as 2020-21 and beyond.
But NBA Comissioner Adam Silver framed the ambition to return a little differently Monday night: it’s what they do.
“A lot of people have pointed to the financial component of this,” Silver said during his appearance on ESPN's "The Return of Sports". “The incremental difference at this point between playing and not playing isn’t nearly as great as people think, especially given the enormous expense of putting this on.
“It’s more a sense from the entire NBA community that we have an obligation to try this. Because the alternative is to stay on the sideline. And the alternative is to, in essence, give in to this virus.”
Silver participated in the show, structured as a series of interviews with commissioners of the NFL, NHL, MLS, WNBA and major league baseball. Players representing each sport also were interviewed, including All-NBA guard Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers.
There’s more than the virus and the challenges it still presents to health and public safety involved, however. Sports leagues find themselves coping with a convergence of serious issues, from the pandemic to the subsequent economic damage to raging public protest triggered last month by the killing of a black citizen, George Floyd, who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for more than eight minutes even after he pleaded for air and stopped moving.
The resumption of the NBA might seem to pale next to those problems. But Silver indicated it was important for the NBA to play its role on every front.
“Listen, it’s not an ideal situation,” Silver said. “We’re trying to find a way to our own normal in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a recession -- or worse -- with 40 million unemployed, and now with enormous social unrest in the country.”
Attempts to establish that “normal” include, at the moment, a plan for 22 NBA teams to train and eventually play eight games each, to be followed by a traditional 16-team playoff bracket. The games, all staged on the Disney campus outside Orlando, would run from July 30 to as late as Oct. 13 for a potential Game 7 of The Finals.
For us, we feel this is what we do. We put on NBA basketball."
The “bubble” concept of keeping teams quarantined for anywhere from six weeks to three months still has details to be finalized, as well as approval from both the NBA owners and the National Basketball Players Association.
The feasibility of pulling off such a grand experiment was complicated last week when several players, including Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and the Lakers’ Dwight Howard, voiced concerns about virus safety and, in particular, the optics of the league’s black athletes returning to action when so much besides their jobs is pulling at them.
“With the pandemic,” Lillard told ESPN host Mike Greenberg, “I think basketball will be great for that because it will be us getting back to somewhat normalcy.
“As far as the racial injustice, I think that’s where the struggle is for a lot of the athletes. Our hearts, our minds are with our people. We feel we should be a part of that fight.
“That’s what the struggle is. That’s where you hear a lot of guys coming out saying maybe we should be focused on that instead of going back and jumping into the season.”
Silver said discussions of such concerns with the NBPA have been ongoing. He said Monday any players who did not feel comfortable participating in Orlando would not breach their contract. But he suggested the multiple agendas could be served with the game’s return.
“For us, we feel this is what we do. We put on NBA basketball,” the commissioner said. “For the country, it will be respite from enormous difficulties people are dealing with in their lives right now.
“I also think in terms of the social justice issues, it will be an opportunity for NBA players and the greater community to draw attention to these issues. Because the world’s attention will be on the NBA in Orlando, Florida, if we’re able to pull this off.”
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