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Coronavirus pandemic causes NBA to suspend season after player tests positive

League game play halted 'until further notice' beginning Thursday, March 12

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Faced with concerns and uncertainties over COVID-19 (coronavirus) and the impact on its games, its business and its extended family of players, coaches and fans, the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season Wednesday until further notice.

The slate of games Wednesday night – including the Jazz-Thunder game delayed before tipoff and postponed soon thereafter – was the last for an indefinite period of time. The New Orleans game at Sacramento, scheduled later than the others, subsequently was cancelled as well.

“The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the league announced.

The trigger for the league-wide suspension of play was the unplayed game in OKC’s Chesapeake Energy Arena. “A player on the Utah Jazz preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19. The test result was reported shortly prior to the tipoff,” according to the news release.

Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell confirmed on Thursday that they both had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“At that time, tonight’s game was canceled. The affected player was not in the arena.”

Earlier Wednesday, the NBA Board of Governors had met via teleconference to discuss the virus, the safety of those involved and proposed scenarios for dealing with the health threat, from staging regular season games without spectators in the arenas to shutting down temporarily.

The league announced in the afternoon that Golden State’s home game against Brooklyn Thursday night, in fact, would be played without permitting ticket holders into the Chase Center in San Francisco. But the events that scuttled the Jazz-Thunder game, and the ripple effects, prompted the league to invoke the hiatus.

Multiple reports cited Gobert as the infected player, although the league did not mention him by name. Denver coach Michael Malone also mentioned Gobert in his postgame news conference in Dallas.

The Jazz issued a statement that read in part: “This morning a player on the Utah Jazz tested negative for influenza, strep throat and an upper respiratory infection. The individual’s symptoms diminished over the course of today. However, in a precautionary measure and in consultation and cooperation with NBA medical staff and Oklahoma health officials, the decision was made to test for COVID-19.

“A preliminary positive result came back right before tip-off.”

The Jazz said the team is working with the Center for Disease Control [CDC], the league and officials in Oklahoma and Utah. The Utah player was receiving care in Oklahoma City.

Rapidly escalating questions and fears about COVID-19 – and how the NBA could best protect its participants and fans – led on Monday to a joint decision with other major sports leagues to close locker rooms to the media. Interviews with players and coaches were conducted in press conference-like set-ups elsewhere in the arenas, and reporters were required to stay 6-8 feet away from those interviewed.

Gobert had poked fun at the policy Monday, after the Jazz’s morning shootaround, touching all the microphones and recorders placed on the table in front of him.

Teams also had advised employees, as with most of the general public, to wash hands frequently, to avoid handshakes and fistbumps and to refrain from touching one’s face.

But the decision to suspend the season has taken this to an entirely new and unprecedented level.

“It’s really not about basketball or money,” said Dallas owner Mark Cuban in an ESPN interview, courtside while his Mavericks played host to the Nuggets. “This thing is just exploding to the point where all of a sudden, players and owners alike, you think about your family. You want to really make sure you’re doing this the right way. Because now it’s much more personal.

“You see what’s happened in other countries, with just the whole idea that it’s come this close and potentially a couple players have it. ‘Stunning’ isn’t the right word. I mean, it’s crazy.”

In the Board of Governors discussion, various scenarios and implications reportedly were addressed. Including the financial hit of lost attendance, the effect on players’ salaries if competing in empty buildings vs. not playing all and the impact on hundreds of other business relationships NBA teams have with vendors and workers in staging their games.

Health concerns and some unsettled details shoved that all to the side Wednesday night. The Jazz players were essentially quarantined at Chesapeake Energy Arena after they left the court moments before the cancellation was announced. Teams that had faced Utah recently reportedly were encouraged to self-quarantine.

The NBA had lost regular-season games in the past to labor lockouts. The 1998-99 season did not start until February 1999 with a 50-game schedule and the 2011-12 season consisted of 66 games that began on Christmas, both delayed by protracted collective bargaining negotiations.

Suspending a season in progress — with five weeks remaining in the 82-game schedule and playoffs set to begin April 18 — is entirely new. With no resumption date in sight for now.

Cuban said this was not going to be like a lockout, which players waiting out the delay however and wherever they chose. “Talking to some of the guys not playing on the bench,” Cuban said, “it was like, ‘Look, I don’t think you guys are going to be able to leave town. … The whole idea is, the only way we can have any control over it and makes sure players are healthy is that we know where they’re at and who they’re dealing with.”

Initial reports were that teams would be permitted to practice and maintain their game readiness. But the reach of the virus and procedures for dealing with it have been moving targets, with new information altering decisions made hours or days earlier.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, in the midst of its conference tournaments and on the brink of its wildly popular “March Madness” national championship tournaments, decided Wednesday to play games without audiences. Many colleges and universities from which those teams are drawn were sending students out of dorms and off campus to continue studies online.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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