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In a lopsided defeat versus Oklahoma City, Utah Jazz finally get some closure
When they were escorted off the court that night, March 11, 2020, they were filled with questions.
“What is happening?”
“Do I have it?”
“How long will this last?”
“Is this the end of the season?”
The Utah Jazz had been moments away from tipping off a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on the night of March 11 when All-Star center Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to be diagnosed with COVID-19. It was a night that will stay with the players there forever.
“I hope we and no one else has to go through that again,” Jazz forward Joe Ingles said. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy to have to go through what we went through.”
One hundred and forty-three days later, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell and OKC’s Chris Paul embraced on the court, finally able to play the game that shut down the NBA. The contest, a 110-94 victory for the Thunder, provided the Jazz a chance to reflect, on basketball and beyond, and perhaps some closure, too.
“It’s pretty surreal that we ended up here kind of replaying the game,” Mitchell said afterward. The two All-Star guards “talked about how crazy life has been since we saw these guys.
“I think honestly it was kind of refreshing to go out there and play that game specifically because it was the one that really changed a lot throughout the world and I think for us to get out there, outside of just the game itself, but just for us as a whole and the NBA, I think it was a pretty special moment.”
March 11 now means something different to each member of the Utah Jazz. That night, the starting lineups had been announced, players were on the court, and backup forward Georges Niang was having a conversation on the bench when everything changed.
“I turned around and people are running around in suits,” he said.
The Jazz knew Gobert had been tested for COVID-19 and they were awaiting results. The man in the suit confirmed that Gobert’s test had come back positive. The game was delayed and then canceled. The players were ushered back to the locker room where they would stay for hours, undergoing testing themselves.
“To be honest with you, I was really shook,” Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson said. “I was scared. I haven’t been scared like that in a while. It was almost like a nightmare. … I’ll never forget it.”
There were concerns — for themselves, for Gobert, and then later for Mitchell, who also tested positive for the virus. The team stayed inside the Thunder arena for hours before finally relocating to a new hotel, as officials in both states orchestrated a plan to get them back to Utah.
The positive tests led to the suspension of the NBA season, in some ways alerting America to the seriousness of the pandemic that still grips the nation.
“We were at the center of it,” Mitchell said.
“Once the NBA shut down, I felt like the United States closed down everything,” Clarkson added.
“It probably saved a lot of lives,” Ingles said.
The death toll, though, continues to rise. As of Saturday, more than 150,000 Americans had lost their lives to the virus. So Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder had a different perspective for Saturday’s game against OKC than he would have had in March.
“The subsequent four months, it gives you an appreciation for how unimportant that game was relative to all the people that have been fighting the virus, the healthcare workers on the front lines, the people that have given their lives to protect others,” Snyder said on Saturday night. “That game starts to fade away in terms of its importance on a larger scale.”
Saturday’s matchup certainly felt different for Gobert, too.
“There were lots of things I’ve missed” over the last few months, he said recently. “I love the game. To be able to be back with my teammates, it’s really something that makes me happy. … You have to learn to enjoy every moment.”
Saturday night’s matchup inside the NBA bubble in Orlando was lopsided. The Thunder jumped out to an early lead and never relinquished it. But the Utah Jazz know it’s only a small part of their story.
“We’re in the middle of a ’30 for 30’ to this day,” Mitchell said. “You’re going to look back on it and this is one of the craziest things that’s happened in sports. Not just in sports. This is one of the craziest things that’s happened in the world in our time.”