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A Front-Row Press Seat to the NBA Shutdown

One year later, Utah Jazz beat writers look back at the chaos of covering basketball’s first positive COVID-19 test, and what it was like when they quickly became a part of the story

Ringer illustration

One year ago, Andy Larsen had writer’s block in the weirdest place. He was sitting on the floor of an NBA arena, his back against the scorer’s table, his Cole Haans pointed toward center court. Being present for the shutdown of the NBA season is a once-in-a-lifetime story. Larsen wanted to write something good. He just couldn’t get his vital organs on the same page.

Glancing at his Fitbit, Larsen saw his heart rate climb to 100 beats per minute. But his brain was moving like Greg Ostertag. “I couldn’t get out more than a sentence at a time that made any kind of narrative sense,” he said.

Larsen, who is 29, is one of two Utah Jazz beat writers at the Salt Lake Tribune. Thanks partly to his formative years as a TrueHoop Network blogger, Larsen asks tough questions without letting delicacy get in the way. Joe Ingles has blocked Larsen on Twitter. After a Jazz loss to the Pelicans this month, Larsen asked Donovan Mitchell why he missed so many dunks. “His charm is that he lacks all social tact,” said Ben Anderson, who covers the Jazz for KSLsports.com.

Larsen can write fast on deadline. But after learning about Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, his mind “freaked out.” Larsen worried he might be sick too. He worried about his parents, who he’d had dinner with three days before. Sitting on the court, Larsen finally put all the facts he’d gathered that night into a list. Then he took three or four facts and formed them into a paragraph.

March 11, 2020, was one of the great record scratches in sportswriting history. To find a decent comp, you’d have to go back to a spasm of terror at the Olympics or maybe a soccer riot. Three Jazz beat writers went to Oklahoma City to see whether the team could get a leg up on the 4-seed in the Western Conference. They wound up covering a league shutdown that signaled just how severe the pandemic would become in the United States. Personal fear became part of an NBA beat job in a way the writers had never experienced.

“I like this [job] because I don’t have to see dead bodies,” said Anderson. “I like this because I don’t have to deal with the heavy part of it. The worst thing that is going to happen to me this year is that a bunch of 76ers fans are mad at me.”

The Jazz beat is the top sports beat in Utah. It’s pretty crowded. In normal times, you can find at least six independent writers at Jazz home games, including three who work for outlets owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The beat has a friendly air. The Deseret News Sarah Todd has regular Sunday dinners with the Tribune’s Eric Walden and his wife.

On March 9, two days before the game in Oklahoma City, the Jazz held a shootaround. Writers put in requests to talk to players after shootarounds, and the writers wanted to talk Gobert. Gobert is well-liked on the beat. Tony Jones, who covers the Jazz for The Athletic, rated him a seven out of 10 in terms of media-friendliness. “He’s a 10 out of 10 quote,” said Jones. (See last week’s Philly game.)

The Jazz granted the request, but with conditions. Normally, beat writers surround Gobert on the court and ask their questions. This time, thanks to new virus protocols, the Jazz put Gobert at a table in a conference room and told the writers to keep their distance. Several writers sat in the front row of seats, maybe 6 or 8 feet away from Gobert.

Two days later, when the clip of Gobert touching the writers’ recorders made the rounds on Twitter, he became a coronavirus pariah. Gobert looked like he was flaunting restrictions—it was the pandemic’s first Scared Straight moment. The beat writers feel this gesture has been wildly misinterpreted.

The first thing to understand about March 9 is that the Jazz weren’t trying to protect the beat writers from Gobert. They were trying to protect Gobert from the beat writers. “The idea was that any of us unwashed media masses could infect Rudy Gobert,” said Larsen. Don’t put our $25 million-a-year shot blocker on the DL!

When Gobert touched their recorders, the beat writers saw him offering an olive branch. As Anderson told me, “I thought that was Rudy trying to say, ‘Hey, I get we’re all being cautious. We’re all being careful. I’m going to show you I’m still willing to bridge this gap.’”

“He’s telling us, ‘I’m not afraid of you. Don’t worry, guys, we’re cool,’” said Todd. “It was more like a sign of solidarity than anything.”

Some of the writers chuckled at the gesture. The Tribune’s Walden tweeted about it with a cry-laughing emoji. On Twitter, someone reminded Walden that Italy was nearing a nationwide lockdown because of mounting virus cases. “I wasn’t thinking about Italy,” said Walden. “It hadn’t really hit home yet. Two days later, man, did it hit home.”

The second thing to understand is that Gobert didn’t breach carefully constructed virus protocols. On March 9, though the NBA had decided to close its locker rooms to media, the guidelines were still haphazard, at best. Before the start of Gobert’s interview, the Jazz writers remember getting close to Gobert as they approached the table and placed their recorders in front of him.

While the Jazz tried to distance Gobert from the writers, the writers were packed together. They sat 3 or 4 feet apart during the press availability and did so again during interviews after that night’s game against the Raptors. Before that game, Raptors coach Nick Nurse addressed a scrum of reporters in the bowels of Vivint Arena. Anderson later sent me a photo of Larsen standing next to Nurse.

Gobert didn’t put the beat writers in a unique danger. The writers were in constant danger because the country was still trying to understand the virus. By accident, Gobert’s press availability became a preview of the Zoom era of sportswriting. March 9, 2020, is the last time any of the Jazz beat writers interviewed Rudy Gobert in person.

Utah Jazz v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

As part of sharing the Jazz beat for the Salt Lake Tribune, Andy Larsen and Eric Walden divide up the road games 50-50. In early March, Walden followed the team on a road trip through New York and Boston. He got back just before Gobert touched the writers’ recorders. In the interest of beat-writer load management, Larsen flew to Oklahoma City on March 10.

A year ago, the Jazz beat writers were like a lot of Americans when it came to COVID-19. “Nobody was really overly alarmed,” said Jones. On the March East Coast road trip, Todd wondered whether she and Jones should buy masks. When Larsen is on the road, Walden normally watches games on TV at home. But on March 11, he asked his boss whether he could have the night off to take his son to an All Elite Wrestling event, where they were surrounded by thousands of other fans.

“I knew that there were only a handful of cases in Utah,” said Larsen. “I knew that there were limited deaths in America. I was honestly frustrated by kind of the piecemeal establishment of some of these restrictions.” After Larsen landed in Oklahoma City, he and members of the Jazz’s in-house media team went to a bar to play trivia.

There were three Jazz beat writers in Oklahoma City: the Tribune’s Larsen, the Deseret News’s Todd, and The Athletic’s Jones. On the morning of March 11, they went to shootaround. There, they got the first hint something might be wrong. Rudy Gobert and guard Emmanuel Mudiay missed shootaround with an undisclosed illness.

The three writers went to a restaurant to grab ramen for lunch. On the Uber ride back to their hotel, they saw speculation online (some of it comic) about Gobert having the coronavirus. “We sent the Jazz a text,” said Jones, “and the text said, ‘Hey, can you guys rule out COVID as a reason for Rudy and Emmanuel missing the shootaround?’” The team replied that it couldn’t.

That wasn’t quite news, the writers thought. And tweeting “the Jazz can’t rule out the fact that Gobert has COVID” seemed pretty inflammatory. Someone could just be plain old sick, as Mudiay turned out to be.

At the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the writers discovered more vague clues. During a pregame interview, Larsen asked Jazz coach Quin Snyder whether Gobert and Mudiay would play against the Thunder. “No,” said Snyder.

Later, the Jazz texted Larsen to say the two players were questionable, not out, and that there had been a miscommunication. “There was no miscommunication in that question,” said Larsen, who posted the audio on Twitter. “Something weird was happening here. But I still didn’t really think that it was coronavirus.”

In the media dining room, a source told Larsen that Gobert had been tested for COVID-19, which made the possibility that he had it slightly less remote. A few minutes later, the Jazz announced that Gobert wasn’t playing against the Thunder, after all.

As tipoff approached, the writers sat in their press seats at the top of the lower bowl, watching the events that are now the subject of documentaries and oral histories. They saw the Thunder team doctor corner the refs. The PA announcer said the teams were awaiting “league confirmation” to start the game.

“I’ve been covering the NBA for eight years,” said Todd. “There has never been an instance where you had to wait on league confirmation to start. That’s not a thing.”

Todd started texting sources. Oddly, they didn’t respond, even to acknowledge the texts. Then the PA announcer said the Jazz-Thunder game was postponed. The crowd filed out of the arena. The writers rushed the opposite direction.

Larsen stood near the court. He wasn’t texting anyone—he thought this might be a story he could get with his eyes and ears. Jones and Todd made their way down the tunnel and planted themselves in a spot near where the team buses were parked. Their thinking was that if the Jazz left the building, players and staff would have to walk by them, and they might get some information.

At 8:27 p.m. CT, The Athletic’s Shams Charania broke the news that Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, a scoop some of the Jazz writers confirmed. At 8:31 p.m., ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the season had been suspended.

In that four-minute span, the Jazz writers were handed a huge assignment. They also got the news that they might be in danger. “There’s that excitement that something big is happening,” said Todd. “And then there’s the depth of fear when we find out exactly what’s happening.”

It was strange territory for a sportswriter. Each dealt with it in their own way. Jones has a stoicism he acquired while writing high school sports for a decade. “If you can cover preps and write a football gamer in 15 minutes in the parking lot of a McDonald’s, you can do anything,” he said. Jones filed a story for The Athletic from a folding table near the loading bay.

As Todd wrote her story for the Deseret News, her laptop died. Like a reporter from the ’50s, she wound up phoning copy into the paper. The Jazz reporters were now newsworthy figures themselves, and the Deseret News had reporter Jody Genessy call Todd and interview her. Todd made the next day’s print edition as a writer and a subject.

Larsen was sitting on the arena floor, writing slowly. “I came up as a blogger, right?” he said. “I had never done anything that was remotely dangerous or even difficult from a reporting point of view. Everything was writing about basketball and how much fun it is.”

Back in Salt Lake City, Eric Walden, Larsen’s partner at the Tribune, had left the wrestling event and gone home. He got into the Tribune’s content management system and began working on Larsen’s draft. As Larsen told me, Walden was able to “throw in some literary flourishes,” like combining sentences with the word “and.” Their co-bylined story began, “Coronavirus has made its way to the NBA.”

Inside Chesapeake Arena, the Jazz beat writers began to perform a kind of contract-tracing instant replay. They thought of the press availability with Gobert, now circulating on Twitter. The close proximity they’d had to Gobert for days. The writers from the Sloan Conference they’d seen in a Boston bar on the previous road trip.

Todd’s mother, who had recently undergone heart surgery, was planning to visit her in Salt Lake City that week. “I don’t want to kill my mother,” said Todd. She called and told her not to come.

Jones got a call from the Uber driver who ferried the three beat writers back from their ramen lunch. He’d heard them talking about the Jazz in the car and then had seen the news. “Oh my God,” the driver said. “Do you guys have COVID?”

“I’m sure we’re fine, sir,” Jones said.

The beat writers’ phones blew up with media requests. With the league speaking via statement, and bigfoot correspondents located elsewhere, they were some of the only people who could report from the ground. Larsen talked to Don Lemon for what he thinks will be the only time in his life. “There’s just no other intersection of circumstances in which they want to talk to the Jazz beat writer,” he said.

With the Jazz sequestered in the locker room, the writers faced the same dynamic with virus protocols they’d encountered two days before. NBA players were a protected class. But the beat writers were an afterthought, at least for the moment, despite their exposure.

Todd tweeted about her frustration. “We could have gotten up and left and had COVID and gotten on a commercial flight, and no one would have stopped us,” she said. After her tweets, and maybe because of them, the Jazz invited the writers to the locker room to get tested after the players.

Outside the locker room, the writers ran into Donovan Mitchell. They chatted with him for a few minutes. The writers didn’t ask to talk on the record, even though at that moment Mitchell was one of the most sought-after interview subjects in the world.

“When I was around the players from that point,” said Jones, “it was kind of like, OK, would I normally be around these guys? The answer is no, so put your tape recorder away.” He didn’t want to take advantage of the situation.

In the Jazz locker room, the beat writers got what Jones called the “skull swab”—a swab deep in the nasal cavities. They walked back to their hotels. Todd charged her laptop and finished the story she’d started working on at the arena around 4 a.m.

The next morning, the writers got calls saying their COVID-19 tests had come back negative. That was good. On the debit side, Wojnarowski reported that Donovan Mitchell tested positive. “It’s like, well, we were just talking to him,” said Todd. “So does that just negate the whole test?” The writers had stood 4 or 5 feet away from Mitchell.

That morning, the Jazz summoned the writers to their team hotel. The team was putting them on the charter flight to fly back to Utah—a nice gesture, and an unusual one, since none of the writers had ever been on the charter before. They sat in the back.

The beat writers spent the next two weeks in quarantine. They’d been advised by Utah’s state epidemiologist to take their temperatures twice a day. Larsen didn’t own a thermometer—“I’m not a responsible human being in general,” he said—so his parents dropped one off in a care package. The Deseret News had people drop off groceries for Todd. Jones got a hotel room so he wouldn’t endanger his wife and kids; he played Madden and caught up on Ozark. All three filed stories, and Larsen wrote a vivid story about his night in Oklahoma City. None of the writers got sick over the next two weeks, though Jones contracted the coronavirus in the fall.

When he got COVID-19, Rudy Gobert became a celebrity PSA. The beat writers were a PSA of a different sort. “In a sense, we represented the normal part of the population that can be exposed to it,” said Anderson. With hindsight, what the writers experienced on March 11 was a preview of the next year of American life. The fear. The contact tracing. The feeling that the people in charge aren’t looking after you.

When an NBA player is part of an otherworldly game, all of us sportswriters sputter something like, “Do you realize how big this is?” We can’t imagine playing that kind of supporting role to history, and we want to know what it feels like.

When I sputtered a version of that question at Todd, she had an answer ready. “I just feel like Sarah Todd,” she said. “I’m a newspaper reporter.”

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