- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
LATE WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, there was a brief moment when people in the NBA felt like they had a plan.
Facing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, the Golden State Warriors had announced that they would host the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday with no fans at the Chase Center in San Francisco. Then, at 3:30 p.m. ET, the league’s owners had met via conference call and left with the expectation that NBA commissioner Adam Silver would soon declare that all games would proceed without fans.
There would be a few attempts at normalcy. Warriors players, for instance, felt it was important to play music in the empty arena to maintain some semblance of atmosphere, after a bad experience at a music-and-sound-free game against the New York Knicks in 2017.
But nothing about this situation was normal, and consensus wasn’t easily reached.
Playing NBA games with no fans was a staggering idea with wide-ranging consequences across the sports world, where other leagues were wrestling with the same questions. No fans meant no gate or concessions revenue. That would ultimately cost teams tens of millions of dollars and trickle down to players through the loss of basketball-related income, as well as team employees and arena workers. But the situation had reached a point where public health officials were recommending that all large events be canceled to slow the spread of the virus.
A handful of NBA owners, including the Warriors’ Joe Lacob, had pushed for a temporary postponement of games. Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett told his peers they’d be foolish to believe there were no players or personnel without the coronavirus, and Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta suggested a three- to four-week pause while expressing frustration over the financial hit he’d already taken with empty restaurants and early-season issues in China.
The majority of owners favored a plan to temporarily keep fans from games so the season could continue.
Warriors team president Rick Welts had been studying the situation and meeting with local public health officials for weeks. In his mind, these precautions had become imperative. And as the business day closed on Wednesday, Welts ran through all the different scenarios with his staffers one last time. They were as ready as they could be.
“But you know,” Welts said to one team executive, “this could all change in a few hours.”
MORE: Coronavirus cancellations and reactions in sports
UNBEKNOWNST TO 29 other teams, the Utah Jazz had contacted local health officials in Oklahoma City on Wednesday morning to request assistance with a player — later identified as center Rudy Gobert — who was showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. He had already tested negative for influenza, an upper respiratory infection and strep throat.
Gobert stayed at the hotel as team and league officials waited for the results, which would take at least four to six hours. Privacy laws prevented anyone from sharing details of his condition. Only a small group — the Jazz training staff and front office, Gobert, NBA officials and Oklahoma City public health officials — knew of the situation.
The rest of the league was still getting its head around the prospect of playing games without fans starting on Thursday. If anything, there seemed to be a conscious effort to enjoy the last day of games with fans for a while.
“The fans help out,” Dallas Mavericks guard J.J. Barea said. “Especially at home.”
Even in Oklahoma City, it looked like business as usual before the Thunder-Jazz game. Ball boys chased down long rebounds and fed passes to players warming up on both teams. But just a few minutes before tipoff, Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey got the call. Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Within minutes, Lindsey, Thunder GM Sam Presti, owner Clay Bennett, Adam Silver and Oklahoma City county health officials had to decide how to proceed. They landed on: Postpone the game, confine both teams to their locker rooms, test everyone who came in close contact with Gobert, and put anyone who came in close contact with those people in isolation until those test results were in.
As soon as a player tested positive, Silver knew he would have to suspend the NBA season indefinitely. There was no more debate. There was not even time to notify the other teams.
“This was a split-second decision,” Silver would later say.
The tricky part was the choreography. The game was about to tip off.
Thunder director of medical services Donnie Strack sprinted onto the court to call a huddle with the game’s three officials. The players were still walking around, confused and curious. Thunder guard Chris Paul approached the Utah bench and asked, “What’s wrong with Rudy?”
A few moments later, the three referees called over coaches Quin Snyder and Billy Donovan, who signaled to their teams to leave the floor. Jazz forward Joe Ingles waved to the fans as if saying goodbye.
To avoid panic, it was decided that the arena should be cleared of fans before the positive COVID-19 test was announced and the season was suspended. That was no small task. The governor of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt, a regular at Thunder games, happened to be in the building. Sources said that helped facilitate and expedite resources toward clearing the building and managing the public health situation.
As Oklahoma public officials were mobilizing, OKC’s public-address announcer told the crowd that the game was delayed. About 10 minutes later, the crowd was told the game was postponed, and then reassured — twice — that they were safe.
“We quickly agreed that this should not be a business decision,” Silver said.
JAZZ PLAYERS WERE immediately given protective masks and gloves and told to wait in the locker room without an explanation. And no time frame was offered for how long they’d be confined.
Players and staffers called and texted agents and friends to try to figure out what was going on. Eventually, state officials arrived to test each of the 58 members of the Jazz traveling party — a process that would take over four hours.
Word of Gobert’s positive test and the subsequent suspension of the NBA season spread throughout the league. Several games were still going on. The New Orleans Pelicans-Sacramento Kings game was less than an hour from tipping off.
Each team began contact tracing, trying to assess the last time they’d faced Gobert and the Jazz or someone who had recently been with Utah. Pelicans officials soon determined that referee Courtney Kirkland had worked the Jazz-Raptors game on Monday and could have been exposed. Players on both teams discussed it and didn’t feel comfortable with the exposure risk. That game was postponed as well.
Whatever plan there had been just a few hours earlier was rapidly changing.
“‘Unprecedented’ is a word a lot of people throw around,” one general manager said. “But this really is unprecedented.”
Now there were no games scheduled. Playoff races were irrelevant. MVP voting, the Lakers-Clippers rivalry, the grand small-ball experiment in Houston — all of it had been cast aside.
“This remains a complicated and rapidly evolving situation that reminds us that we are all part of a broader society with a responsibility to look out for one another,” Silver wrote in a statement to fans on Thursday. “That is what the NBA will continue to do.”
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS GUARD Josh Richardson learned the season had been suspended as he turned on his phone following a win over the Detroit Pistons.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Richardson said. “Everything became very real, because there’s now people out here who [they] feel like they know. It’s Rudy Gobert. Oh my gosh. It’s Donovan Mitchell. Tom Hanks … and that’s too far. Forrest Gump has it?”
Richardson is from Oklahoma City, so he immediately called family members to make sure they were OK. Sixers players started talking about what this all meant and what would come next.
Nobody in the league had answers yet, except that everyone should go home, self-isolate, watch for symptoms and wait for further instruction.
“I was just home with my dog all day [Thursday],” Richardson said. “But everybody is really, really in touch, whether it’s the team group text, talking to trainers or agents.”
Richardson is a soccer fan. He’d been paying close attention to all the cancellations of European leagues, but seeing things happen from afar is different from living it in real time.
“I kind of figured somebody would end up having it,” Richardson said. “But it’s just one of those things where you just hope for the best and expect the worst.”
Whether this is the worst remains to be seen. Utah players and staffers who were tested for COVID-19 on Wednesday remained overnight in Oklahoma City at the 21c Museum Hotel as they awaited their results. On Thursday morning, before finally returning to Utah, they found out that star guard Donovan Mitchell had also tested positive. Emmanuel Mudiay had been feeling ill before the game, but he tested negative.
The five teams that had played the Jazz over the past 10 days — the Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors — were also told to self-isolate. No players from those teams have reported symptoms or tested positive for the coronavirus.
The league had another series of calls with owners, executives, the players’ union and coaches on Thursday to discuss next steps. Issues like player compensation, the importance of maintaining individual privacy on medical information and the economic impact on part-time workers were discussed. The rough outline of a new plan was shaped: This hiatus will last at least 30 days. Then the NBA will see where things stand, both internally and in the world at large.
Privately, teams and owners are bracing themselves for anything.
“It’s remarkable to be here talking to you guys tonight about this hiatus,” Silver said on TNT late Thursday, evening, 24 hours and seemingly a lifetime after making the decision to suspend the season, “when it was only yesterday that the NCAA made the decision to play without fans — which seemed unprecedented — and was a historic decision.
“I think it only makes the point that on this issue and all the things we’ve all dealt with for so many years where it changes day by day, this literally changes hour by hour in terms of what we know.”
Royce Young, Zach Lowe, Brian Windhorst, Tim MacMahon and Andrew Lopez contributed to this report.
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