Because even NBA players can’t transform a game of H-O-R-S-E or NBA 2K into mass entertainment, the most interesting league news this week came via the ongoing reported rift between Jazz All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. Before Saturday, the two hadn’t spoken to each other in more than a month, which Gobert confirmed to reporter Taylor Rooks on Sunday, when Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11 and Mitchell did the same a day later. Headlines like “Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell Aren’t on Good Terms” and “Donovan Mitchell Reportedly Furious at Rudy Gobert” have popped up since, all with the implication that Mitchell blames Gobert for spreading the virus. On Friday, a source told The Athletic that their relationship “doesn’t appear salvageable.” By Sunday, it was time for damage control. Gobert told reporter Taylor Rooks on Instagram Live that he and Mitchell finally spoke over the weekend, and that things are “great” now. Athletes are forced to double as public relations officials all the time, but we’ve never seen it done because one player possibly spread a deadly virus to another—and now had to mend fences.
It’s not hard to imagine why Mitchell is upset with Gobert; for a couple of weeks, the entire basketball community felt the same way. Gobert will always be known as the league’s patient zero for COVID-19. Initially, he was blamed by many for its spread around the NBA. But patient zero implies that Gobert was the first case, when in reality we know only that he was the first player to be diagnosed. Many who contract the virus are asymptomatic. The director of the CDC estimated that over 25 percent of carriers show no symptoms, while Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last week it was anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent. It’s impossible to connect the dots when not every dot is visible, especially in a league that stretches the country and traverses it on a nightly basis.
When Mitchell was diagnosed on March 12, Gobert was blamed. It’s human nature to look for a scapegoat, and after all, The Athletic reported on March 11 that Gobert had spent time with relatives visiting from France, where the virus was starting to run rampant, in the days before the team’s Oklahoma City road trip. That said, it’s not impossible that Mitchell, who told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America he hadn’t experienced any symptoms, could’ve been the one who passed it on to Gobert. The possibility is “something the team tried to make clear to Mitchell,” The Athletic reported.
That Gobert didn’t distance himself from the team after experiencing flulike symptoms in the days leading up to his test is reason enough for teammates to be frustrated. Per Jazz players that ESPN spoke with, Gobert had a “cavalier attitude in the locker room” about the virus. Utah coach Quin Snyder made repeated efforts to educate the team on the seriousness of the situation. The same day that Snyder held a second team meeting with medical professionals to warn his players, Gobert finished a press conference by facetiously touching reporters’ recorders and microphones positioned in front of him. At the time, it was childish and dangerous; as the situation has rapidly gotten worse, those couple of seconds—and that clip—will stay with Gobert for the rest of his career.
Gobert’s nonchalance represented the most concerning public reaction to the coronavirus in the United States. “To be honest with you,” Mitchell said during his Good Morning America appearance last month, “it took a while for me to kind of cool off, and I read what he said and heard what he said. I’m glad he’s doing OK. I’m glad I’m well. I’m just really happy, to be honest, Robin, that it wasn’t the whole [team].”
Mitchell told a national audience that he read the apology Gobert wrote before speaking to his teammate about it. But the delay is fair game. So is the time Mitchell needed to decompress. Teammates subtly take digs at each other in the media all the time, but I can’t remember a time when the reason has ever been so dire. Even if Mitchell decides to move past this, the two will face the daunting challenge of salvaging their relationship in the public eye. Analysts won’t be scouring their body language for signs that they’re beefing during Jazz games—because there are no Jazz games. Not taking a pandemic seriously is an entirely new category of rift—and the normal means to repair a relationship don’t exist. There is no locker room, no team plane, no practice, no shootaround. All conversations will be through Zoom, over the phone, or worst of all, conveyed through the media.
Before COVID-19 struck the NBA, there was already speculation that Gobert’s teammates weren’t pleased with him. “It’s on me to get in good positions at the rim,” Gobert said in November, explaining to reporters that he needs more touches for the offense to work, “and at the same time, it’s on my teammates to want to find me.” I keep going back to this tweet, which was sent after it was clear Mitchell was livid:
I knew Rudy Gobert wasn't a well liked dude when the news broke that he caught that rona and not one NBA player sent their well wishes.— Beyonce has an uncle named Larry Beyince. Bruh.... (@DragonflyJonez) April 10, 2020
Gobert and Mitchell can’t see the bigger picture of winning it all, either, because that opportunity is on hold indefinitely. On the IG Live video, Gobert said, “It’s true that we didn’t speak for a while after this, but we spoke a few days ago. We’re both ready to go out there and try to win a championship for this team.” That’s the ultimate goal, but having a postseason seems to be less possible with every passing day.
Both players are up for extensions this summer; Gobert is eligible for the supermax (though there’s debate about whether the Jazz should make that large of a commitment) and Mitchell can sign a rookie maximum extension. Re-signing Gobert and Mitchell seemed like certainties before the season was postponed. Now, it’s complicated by something outside of basketball. Gobert’s recourse might’ve been enough were the players still sharing a common goal, still participating in practices together, still stuck on the same team plane. But it’s difficult to remain close to someone when you’re forced to stay so far away, especially if that intimacy was already fading away.