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As the Coronavirus Hits the NBA, the Severity Hits Home for Fans

Rudy Gobert’s COVID-19 diagnosis served as a wake-up call for a world ill-equipped to confront a pandemic. As the NBA navigates uncharted waters, other leagues and the public watch to see when basketball—and more importantly, normal life—can resume.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the NBA began to deal with the coronavirus earlier this month, the league’s action items seemed small and quaint enough: fist bumps instead of high fives, don’t take a fan’s pen for autographs, stuff like that. Some players and officials stressed the importance of preparing and listening to public health officials’ instructions regarding COVID-19; others adopted a more casual approach to something that had caused a major disruption overseas, but wasn’t yet a widespread problem in the U.S.

Jazz veteran big man Ed Davis put a pretty fine point on the state of affairs last Saturday.

“It’s not really going to get serious until somebody in the NBA catches it,” Davis told Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic. “That’s when it’s going to be a problem. That’s when it’s going to alert motherfuckers. … I guess in things like this, it doesn’t really get serious until it hits home or something like that.”

It hit home on Wednesday night, when the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season following reports that All-Star center Rudy Gobert—Davis’s teammate—had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Gobert’s COVID-19 diagnosis set off a flurry of activity. The Jazz’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was called off after a member of the Thunder’s medical staff ran onto the court seconds before tipoff to alert officials that something was up. Following a prolonged delay during which the Thunder mascot, a cheerleading squad, and scheduled halftime performer Frankie J all performed, the public address announcer said that “due to unforeseen circumstances,” the game had been postponed, and informed disquieted fans still in the building, “You are all safe.” Members of the Jazz and Thunder were then quarantined at Chesapeake Energy Arena. While members of the Jazz’s traveling party were tested immediately, Thunder players and staff were intially sent home Wednesday night without being tested, but will now be administered COVID-19 tests at the direction of the Oklahoma State Health Department. While the NBA initially announced the season’s suspension would go into effect after the conclusion of Wednesday’s games, the evening’s final contest between the Kings and Pelicans was called off because one of the referees assigned to work the game, Courtney Kirkland, had officiated a Jazz game earlier in the week.

Players from teams the Jazz had faced in the last 10 days, as well as members of their traveling parties, were told to self-quarantine, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. Of those teams, the Celtics, Pistons, and Raptors have already announced plans to do so. The Cavaliers announced that they are “not currently under a mandatory quarantine,” but that any players or staff members who experience symptoms “will be tested and undergo self-quarantine.” The Knicks, who played Utah on March 4, have made no public statement on the matter. (The Wizards, who played in Utah on February 28, have also announced they will be self-quarantining.)

It was reported Thursday that Gobert’s teammate, All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, has also been diagnosed with coronavirus; he was reportedly the only other member of the Jazz to do so. Given the interconnected nature of a league in which teams have sustained close physical contact with opponents in different cities several times per week, it would not be surprising if more positive tests followed.

The NBA’s decision to suspend play (which reportedly came despite some resistance from the Knicks, Rockets, and Pacers) marks one of the most direct and severe intrusions yet into everyday American life by an escalating global pandemic that has produced more than 127,000 cases and 4,700 deaths across the world, with at least 1,300 cases and 38 deaths coming in the United States. Since Wednesday night, Major League Baseball, the NHL, MLS, G League, and USHL have all joined the NBA in suspending competition, as have many major European basketball leagues. Before word of Gobert’s positive test and the NBA’s decision to suspend, the NCAA had planned to move forward with its annual March Madness tournament without fans in attendance; on Thursday afternoon, the NCAA chose to cancel—not postpone—the men’s and women’s tournaments and “all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.”

Gobert’s positive test feels like a flashbulb moment in the American public’s understanding of COVID-19. While the 27-year-old French center isn’t a household name like LeBron or Durant (nor is he Tom Hanks), he is a major figure in the NBA—a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and an All-Star. He is also, notably, someone whose initial response to the threat of the coronavirus was to poke fun at an NBA policy asking reporters to stay at least 6 feet away during interviews as a precautionary measure, making a point of touching every microphone and recording device belonging to the journalists being kept at a distance ...

… and someone whom “Jazz players are privately saying [he] showed a cavalier attitude toward the virus in the locker room, touching teammates and their belongings,” according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. (For what it’s worth, the Utah Department of Health told Ben Anderson of KSL that it considers Gobert’s microphone-touching a “low-risk exposure.” Multiple Jazz media members received testing after Wednesday’s cancellation, and will self-quarantine for 14 days after returning to Utah.) None have reported a positive test.

Gobert publicly apologized to those he “may have endangered” on Thursday in an Instagram post. “At the time, I had no idea I was even infected,” he wrote. “I was careless and make no excuse. I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously.”

If it wasn’t abundantly clear before Wednesday—and it should have been, even as the league took only incremental steps toward following the recommendations of public health officials in canceling large public gatherings—this isn’t something to treat lightly. It’s serious enough to stop multiple multibillion-dollar multinational corporations in their tracks until there’s more information about next steps.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on ESPN on Thursday morning that he did not believe the remainder of the 2019-20 season will be canceled, but rather that it could be postponed; he speculated that teams could play a curtailed version of the remaining regular season before entering into the playoffs, with games stretching late into the summer. An NBA season that pushed past mid-June would necessitate drastic changes to a slew of summertime events, including but not limited to the 2020 NBA draft, the start of free agency, the NBA’s various summer leagues, the participation of players in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (should that remain on the schedule), and the start of the 2020-21 season.

The process of figuring out how that all might work began with a Board of Governors conference call on Thursday afternoon, but with the pandemic continuing its spread and actors in both the public and private sectors just beginning to get their arms around its potential impact, we shouldn’t anticipate a quick return. Multiple reports indicate the league will be on hiatus for a minimum of one month, at which point the league will reevaluate and determine its next course of action. How NBA teams manage that period remains to be seen.

Players’ contracts are fully guaranteed, though as multiple sources have noted, there is a mechanism in the collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players that could potentially allow owners to withhold players’ pay. Article XXXIX, Section 5, of the CBA—the heading “Termination by the NBA/Force Majeure”—covers an event or condition that makes it impossible or “economically impracticable” for the NBA to perform its obligations, including but not limited to war, terrorism, catastrophic weather events and natural disasters ... and “epidemics.” If such an event or condition occurred, preventing teams from playing games, and those games were not rescheduled or replayed, then “the Compensation payable to each player who was on the roster of a Team that was unable to play one or more games during the Force Majeure Period shall be reduced by 1/92.6th of the player’s Compensation for the Season(s) covering the Force Majeure Period.”

Whether owners would go after players’ checks during a pandemic, however, is another question. Such a shot across the bow of the workforce might not be the wisest move, considering the league would very much want to be able to get back to business as soon as it is safe to do so. In terms of labor, the greater concern will be the impact of the suspension on the many hourly and part-time arena employees who no longer have games to staff. Cuban said Wednesday that he was putting together a plan to pay displaced arena workers during the hiatus; the Cavaliers announced Thursday that they’d do the same, and the 76ers said they are “committed to assisting our arena associates through this period.” We’ll see if more teams follow suit.

The impact of the league’s suspension on revenues—and thus on basketball-related income, and thus on the salary cap and luxury tax lines that are tied to BRI—remains unclear. ESPN’s Bobby Marks projected that a resumption of the remaining schedule but with fans not allowed to attend “could cost the league an estimated $500 million in BRI, even before the playoffs,” but that a return to play with fans in the stands could mitigate or even eliminate the potential losses. Salary cap expert Larry Coon told Henry Bushnell of Yahoo Sports that, since the salary cap is “set based on projected revenues for that [next] season,” and that “this season’s revenues will be a poor predictor for next season’s revenues,” the league and players union could choose to “do something different” in determining how to calculate the 2020-21 cap figure.

That, like so many other things about this situation, remains up in the air, and likely will for some time. All we know for sure is that we won’t be watching NBA basketball, and many other sports, for a while. For millions privileged enough not to have been touched by it before this week, the severity of the coronavirus hit home on Wednesday. And now, we wait.