Even as the NBA’s version of a “new normal” came into greater focus Friday, commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged that the comprehensive plan to restart the 2019-20 season on a single-site campus near Orlando remains very much a work in progress.
And probably will remain so right through The Finals championship trophy presentation sometime in October.
“We can’t outrun the virus,” Silver said in a media conference call Friday afternoon that featured other league executives as well as National Basketball Players Association leaders Michele Roberts, Chris Paul and Andre Iguodala.
“This is what we’re going to be living with for the foreseeable future,” Silver said. “This is a closed network. While it’s not impermeable, it is protected.”
All remaining games will be played in a “bubble” concept at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, with players, coaches and staff working under strict health and safety protocols to minimize the risk from COVID-19. The NBA shut down its season on March 11 as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread across the nation.
The league, the players association, public health specialists and government officials worked on the program to resume. The version to be played out at Disney: Twenty-two teams competing first through a schedule of eight “seeding games,” a possible play-in layer for No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, followed by the traditional NBA playoff bracket of four rounds of best-of-seven series, allowing for a 2020 champion to be crowned.
Notice that word “traditional,” though? That’s about the only part of this resumption that will be.
No fans will be in attendance for the games, and participants’ families and friends will be permitted into the “bubble” only after the playoffs’ first round. They, too, will be headquartered and held to the same precautions as the players and coaches. All will undergo coronavirus testing daily, at least initially, Silver said.
Concerns in recent days about an increase in positive test results both in Florida and nationally raised questions about the restart. How would a positive test of an NBA superstar be handled, for example. And how many positives would be too many, possibly causing the entire operation to be scuttled?
“If we have a single player test positive, whether an All-Star or a journeyman, that player would go into quarantine,” Silver said. Then medical personnel would track others with whom that player had contact.
As far as stopping a playoff series for a single positive — whether LeBron James or a deep reserve — Silver said the league would “treat that positive test as we would an injury.”
A cluster of players on one team testing positive or a spate of COVID-19 cases across the campus would force the league and health officials to react in real time. “We’re never going to say there’s nothing that would cause us to change our plans,” the commissioner said, adding that no definitive number of tolerable positives exists for now.
The NBA and the NBPA jointly announced Friday the results of coronavirus testing conducted on Tuesday. Of the 302 players tested, 16 came back positive. Those players will remain in self-isolation until he satisfies public health protocols and has been cleared by a physician.
Asked about that outcome, Roberts, the union’s executive director, said that even one positive is a concern. But she added: “If nothing else, it tells me that the great majority of players have been doing what they should have been doing. … One is too many, but 160 would have been devastating.”
Silver said the 5.3 percent positive rate was in line with what the league’s data suggested, accounting for factors such as age group and locale. He noted that none of the 16 players is seriously ill.
David Weiss, the NBA senior vice president who oversees player health programs, said on the call the league’s partnership with Advent Health will ensure a clinic is maintained within the campus. Local hospitals in the Orlando area will be used if someone gets seriously ill.
In tackling the restart, the NBA is trying to thread multiple priorities through the eye of a needle. Financial considerations are huge, given the hundreds of millions and potentially billions of dollars lost due to the shutdown. NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum declined to estimate the amount of revenue that might be salvaged by the plan and the postseason’s completion.
The health and safety of those participating is essential, Silver, Roberts and others have said repeatedly. And then there are issues of social justice and the NBA players and coaches motivated to voice their views, given the civil unrest stemming from black civilian George Floyd’s killing on a Minneapolis street while in the custory of four police officers.
Several players, including Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and Lakers’ Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley, wondered if the restart might interfere or send the wrong message at a time when protests and riots were breaking out in many cities.
Where the NBA and the players union landed, though, was that the platform provided by the restart — with all involved gathered in one place to amplify their voices — might be the best way for them to speak out and lead.
“A beacon of light,” NBPA vice president Andre Iguodala said, acknowledging the impact of the virus on jobs and fans, as well as the unrest in the streets.
Said Chris Paul, president of the players union: “I’m excited for what we can do that is a lot bigger than the game. … It’s never a ‘shut up and dribble’ situation. You’re going to continue to hear us.”
Silver talked about creating an NBA foundation, a first for the league, as an independent organization that would “help drive change with us.” He added: “It’s incumbent on us not to lose this moment. We will have the world’s attention.”
The health issues alone are vast. As if the virus weren’t enough, the potential for basketball injuries after such an unprecedented layoff and relatively rapid return to games that pack more urgency than those played in November is a concern.
Then there’s the unknown of how players might be affected by the unique challenges of the “bubble” concept. Most Americans have had to deal with the unusual circumstances of sheltering in place, altering their routines and coping with financial and emotional hits due to the lockdowns.
Now the NBA will send its extended family into a whole new version of reality of social distancing, masks and other precautions, huddled in one location and cut off from their homes and (for a while) loved ones.
Paul credited NBA colleagues Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan for opening up in recent years about challenges of stress and anxiety for players, even seemingly comfortable, wealthy and successful performers. They “gave us all a comfort level in speaking about this,” Paul said.
It’s a complicated, precarious, exhilarating, fascinating and unprecedented journey on which the NBA officially has embarked. Bumps along the way are all but guaranteed, but the time, cost and effort invested so far — and what the league considers its prospects for success — makes the departure worthwhile.
“We believe we’ve developed a safe and responsible plan to restart the season,” Silver said. “We ultimately believe it will be safer on our campus than outside of it. But this is definitely not business as usual.”
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