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The NBA Goes From Entertaining to Informing

Earlier this week, Steph Curry livestreamed a Q&A with Anthony Fauci to present a younger audience with information about the coronavirus, becoming the latest in a line of figures from the basketball world to spread awareness about the pandemic.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Hyped to talk all things COVID-19 with Dr. Fauci,” tweeted Golden State Warriors superstar Steph Curry on Wednesday, announcing that the next day he’d be interviewing National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci about the coronavirus on Instagram Live. “Let’s get it!” Curry added—and if you think this sounded more like a guy promoting a SXSW music panel or a video game podcast than an interview about a pandemic, that was kind of the point.

“I wanted to have this Q&A,” Curry told Fauci the next morning, “and hopefully reach a different demographic.” Their Instagram Live audience included Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Common, and so many thirsty normie viewers clogging Curry’s requests that he initially had trouble connecting with Fauci. “He’s a busy man,” Curry told viewers, biding time as he—like so many others these past few weeks—struggled to get the dang teleconference to work properly. “So we gotta track him down.” When the doctor’s face finally appeared, Curry complimented him on his office decor: There, next to the stack of books and the vital coffeemaker, was a mini basketball hoop.

Fauci, who has become the de facto national virus czar, was long ago captain of his high school hoops team at Regis in New York, and is beloved by the likes of Bob Cousy. (According to a Reddit commenter whom I can’t vouch for but I choose to believe, Fauci’s office also contains “signed game balls from coachK [sic] and either Dean Smith or Roy. Man loves his basketball.”) So it seems quite likely that Fauci has spent time marveling over Curry’s on-court supremacy. These days, though, it’s the NBA superstar who admires the doctor’s work.

“I appreciate your commitment to protecting the masses,” Curry told Fauci, then spent the next half-hour going down his list of crowd-sourced, carefully worded questions—about testing, and immunity, and comparisons to influenza, and what’s to come and what to do. “You see all the different visuals of people at the beach, in parks, at crazy social gatherings,” Curry pointed out, “and not really adhering to that social distancing concept.” His tone was more quizzical than judgmental; it genuinely felt like he sought to educate, not shame.

It was only (somehow) two weeks ago that the NBA suspended its season in order to avoid being one more source of those crazy social gatherings, a decision that, like so much else in a pandemic, was both surprisingly abrupt and overdue. Now, Curry has become the latest NBA personality to use his platform to advance COVID-19 awareness in an attempt to influence our public health. As the coronavirus has spread from a rare novelty to a global reality, the NBA and its players, once cautionary examples, are now setting thoughtful and powerful ones.

I’ll never forget where I was when I learned that the NBA had been suspended: sitting in an Apple Store in Reno, nearly an hour into an on-hold session with AT&T. That was the last time I went anywhere other than a grocery store or my home. No one was wearing a mask, lots of customers were in their golden years, and only one gal in the big airy room, an Apple employee, bothered to wear gloves.

The tweets I saw felt fake: a doctor sprinting onto the court at the opening tipoff? A full stadium of fans being asked to leave in an orderly fashion, with the PA guy ominously assuring them: “You’re all safe”? And then there was the wildest detail of all: Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who days earlier had puckishly mocked a new NBA rule requiring the media keep a safe distance from players by touching all the reporters’ microphones and recorders, had come back with a positive test. But the drama sure drew attention: When I showed the news to my Genius, he nearly wept at the idea of not being able to watch his favorite, Giannis.

As Rany Jazayerli, a dermatologist and occasional Ringer contributor, pointed out on Twitter, that may turn out to be one of the most influential diagnoses of the still-unfolding crisis. Before the night of Gobert’s positive test, the NBA had been dragging its feet like just about every other institution, taking a wait-and-see approach that, in hindsight, seems incredibly reckless. But Gobert’s diagnosis didn’t just cause the immediate cessation of NBA games, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from assembling en masse over the following weekend, it also bushwhacked through the thorny unknown so that other leagues had a path forward too.

The NHL canceled within a day; March Madness and MLB soon followed. (The NFL, meanwhile, has barreled right through its offseason like it is Saquon Barkley.) And while there were skeptics, as ever, about the need to adapt to the crisis, the NBA’s closure certainly opened many eyes to the truth of the coronavirus too. This wasn’t some talking head being hyperbolic on TV: This was the National Basketball Association up and pulling the plug. This was for real. Over the next week, as schools and nonessential businesses began closing down, the NBA remained, however uncomfortably, in the news: Not only did Kevin Durant have COVID-19, for example, but now Drake was self-quarantining after having hung out with him. (Drake ultimately tested negative.)

The very fact that Durant and his Brooklyn Nets teammates could get tested was a headline of its own, a sign that strings could indeed be pulled for the rich and famous, even those not showing symptoms, while so many sick Americans around the country were struggling to qualify for a test. As with so much else early on, this wasn’t a great look for the NBA. At the same time, though, associating such famous faces and franchises with the pandemic’s ongoing developments helped make the surfeit of testing a more obvious problem, in the same way the hectic cancellation of the season itself had helped reinforce and accelerate the growing understanding that this was a threat to take seriously, like it or not.

The NBA is a proudly star-driven league, invested in defining and marketing the quirks and talents and idiosyncrasies of its players, and for Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart the image is one of not-to-be-fucked-with. Or, as the Boston Herald put it less profanely after Smart was fined $35,000 for a tirade on March 3, the volatile Smart is “a Tasmanian Devil.” But on March 20, Smart recorded a PSA selfie that was downright serene: He’d been diagnosed with the virus, he said, and wanted to impress upon everyone how important it was to stay home. The next night he appeared on CNN to get his message out further. “I feel great,” he explained to host Chris Cuomo, by way of warning. “I feel fine. I feel like I could go play a game right now.” The message was clear: You may not feel sick, but you need to stay home.

There have been other NBA celebrities, both on and off the court, who have been similarly committed to leveraging their visibility. Charles Barkley was open about getting tested based on his symptoms, and though his own test came back negative, he nevertheless helped to normalize the idea of infection. Mike Breen recorded a wholesome PSA about staying home that culminated in a swishy self-“bang!” (According to Breen’s wife on Twitter, Breen recorded the segment in two takes filmed by their daughter, but hit the shot on both of them.)

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was caught on camera reacting to the news of the NBA’s postponed season pretty much the same way we all had at the Apple Store, but he immediately turned his shock into action; his proactive announcement that he’d be finding a way to pay part-time arena workers through any work stoppage helped set a standard by which other franchises around the league are now rightly being held. While it’s wholly gross to see the Philadelphia 76ers, for example, try strenuously to avoid doing the right thing, or to watch as 19-year-old rookie Zion Williamson operates with more empathy than the much older and much richer people who own his organization, it’s a sign of progress that conversations about what workers deserve in America are taking place on a meaningful scale. Already, several teams have changed their policies under public pressure.

Earlier this week, Karl-Anthony Towns uploaded a heartbreaking announcement that his mother was in a coma due to complications stemming from COVID-19. (His father contracted the disease also, but is currently recovering at home.) “This disease is real,” Towns said urgently. “This disease needs not to be taken lightly. Please protect your families, your loved ones, your friends, yourself.” It’s this type of message that Curry sought to impress upon viewers by interviewing an expert like Fauci about the facts behind COVID-19. Curry is a relatively accessible superstar, but he’s never really sought to be a controversial one; even his rebukes of President Trump a few years back never reached “U bum” territory. His questions for Fauci eschewed politics and sought just the facts. His first question: How is this different from the flu? “Mostly the same,” Fauci began, for what must be the hundredth time in weeks, “but with some interesting, maybe disturbing, differences.”

A few days before the NBA canceled its season, Curry felt sick; though his test came back negative, he experienced firsthand the fear of waiting to find out more news. He told this story to Fauci on their livestream, rambling a little bit about herd immunity and antibodies and accessibility, sounding a lot like the sorts of nervous and overprepared reporters who are so often asking him these circuitous-sounding questions at press conferences. Fauci took a deep breath when he finished. “OK, Steph,” he began, not unkindly, “you have three or four or five questions there.” Curry grinned: “I know, I know,” he said. It was a lovely, human moment between two men at the top of their games, two people who are just trying to make sure everyone else knows, too.