NBA Season Restart 2019-20

Orlando eagerly watches, hopes as NBA readies for its return to the court

City serving as host to NBA restart has been hit hard financially by pandemic

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

ORLANDO — What the Central Florida map doesn’t show is how this area is actually split in two. On one side are strip malls and housing developments, on the other side are fantasy-filled theme parks, and they’re connected by Interstate 4, the asphalt spine that normally is clogged by folks escaping one for the other.

Two different towns coexist out of proximity and convenience and even necessity, and it’s been this way since a man and a cartoon mouse surveyed a vast stretch of cattle pasture six decades ago and had the insane imagination to build a global tourist attraction.

And now, here in the midst of a pandemic, Orlando is separated once again. Another visionary — in this case, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver — arrived here to create an insular safe space for the league on Disney World property; meanwhile, a coronavirus-whipped city must watch with its nose pressed against the glass.

Everyone wants to know what’s about to happen on the inside, and in due time, science will decide if this bold experiment to restart the NBA season will impress or implode. But what about the outside? How is the Other Half living? The state of Florida now grapples with a massive spike in COVID-19 cases and overwhelmed hospitals and could shut down again.

It presents an interesting juxtaposition, how one part of Orlando is the center of hope, and the other part is the Florida epicenter of coronavirus devastation.

As LeBron James seeks a championship with his third team, and the Milwaukee Bucks aim to stamp their legitimacy, and fractured Utah Jazz teammates Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert learn to get along, the Orlando that the team buses bypass on the way to Disney is trying to cope with real life issues. Florida reported 15,299 cases on Sunday, the highest one-day amount of new cases reported by any state since the pandemic began last spring, breaking its own record. There’s also a surge in unemployment in Orlando and a reduction of children pulling their parents toward the park rides, a combination that, for a city heavily dependent on visitors, is more haunting than the summer humidity.

While there will be no undocumented visitors or fans allowed inside the NBA’s heavily secured campus, Orlando can at least live vicariously and virally through the players and a game that’s so close yet so far away from the general population. Assuming, of course, that the season will continue hiccup-free through October’s conclusion. If nothing else, the decamped NBA is a diversion for a place that could use one.

“The whole country will watch what the NBA is doing, not just Orlando,” said Pat Williams, the now-retired former president of the Orlando Magic. “I can’t imagine all that has gone into it, all the planning, all the details, all the health issues that had to be taken into account. First of all there’s no blueprint for this. There’s nothing in the NBA handbook about how to handle a pandemic and try to play basketball. And now we’re going to see pro sports presented in a way that four months ago nobody could’ve imagined in their wildest dreams, right here in a city where everyone’s wearing a mask and looking like the Lone Ranger.”

The league is hardly doing this on a whim. This is months in the making. The NBA is bringing resources and vision and planning and certainly crossed fingers to the battleground with coronavirus. All players were tested before leaving their home cities, which is why Russell Westbrook, who tested positive for COVID-19, wasn’t on the team plane and therefore won’t turn up in Orlando to expose others until he clears, and why only two out of 322 players tested positive at Disney.

But the way of life for Orlando beyond the basketball courts can only be classified as confusing. There is no consistent governmental or civic plan for opening businesses, schools, attractions and other gathering spots, and so this place is indeed open — to second-guessing. Was the state too quick to relax certain standards in the fight? Did it rush to reintroduce a sense of normalcy by reopening in early May?

That’s all up for debate; meanwhile, instead of progressing, Florida is now a hotspot, with troubling signs swirling all around the NBA campus.

The Disney parks reopened in phases last weekend with an abundance of safety protocols and the reaction was mixed, with most of the outcries coming nationally through social media. But locally, at least among those who depend on the theme parks for a living, it was welcome. That’s why the Orlando situation is a complicated bag. When the rent is due and jobs are at stake and the unemployment checks end, it gets personal and urgent.

For example, Adrienne Johnston, bureau chief of workforce statistics and economic research at the Department of Economic Opportunity, recently gave a bleak outlook to a Central Florida job market that was at 2.9% unemployment before the theme parks closed in mid-March. By May, the jobless rate was 23.2% in Orange County, 31% in Osceola County.

Based on the information that we see through both the labor force statistics and the job creation numbers, it’s very apparent that leisure and hospitality is an area that is continuing to either see job losses or not gain them back quite as quickly,” Johnston said. With the Orlando metro area, there’s a high concentration of those types of jobs in that area. And so, they’re more impacted more than other areas in the state.”

It’s been a struggle. But we’re excited to have live sports on again. People miss it and want it back.”

Riece Davis, restaurant manager, Harry Buffalo

Just on the other side of I-4 from Amway Center, the downtown home of the Orlando Magic, lies the city’s business district and a stretch of bars and restaurants on Church Street. None are busier on game nights than the popular Harry Buffalo, which has seen a steep drop in traffic.

“When the Magic had a home game we’d close down the street, have block parties with bands and big gatherings with happy hour and tailgating,” said Riece Davis, manager of Harry Buffalo. “It’s obviously changed dramatically for us. It’s been a struggle.”

Davis said his staff was trimmed from 50 to 10 and resorted to take-out meals just to save the business. He’s happy the NBA decided to resume the season even if it’s 10 miles away.

“We’re excited to have live sports on again,” he said. “We can’t pack the house like we normally would before a Magic game but still have people if people want to get out of the house and wear a mask and sit six feet apart, they’ll be here. People miss it and want it back.”

Nobody’s more anxious for the NBA to resume than the NBA. Teams are practicing now, scrimmaging by next week and playing real games by month’s end. The signs are promising so far at Disney.

Meanwhile, the other half of Orlando watches and wonders.

“When we were awarded the basketball franchise, we named the team the Magic because we thought magic captured the spirit of the city,” said Williams. “Somehow, hopefully, we’ll do what it takes to get through this. We don’t really have a choice.”

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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 .

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

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