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Bring back the NBA!: The case for reviving professional sports in the time of coronavirus

The NBA canceled the remainder of the season after a player tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. A handful of other players have tested positive since.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/file

I’m just going to come out and say it: I miss the Celtics.

I miss Jaylen Brown’s dunks and Jayson Tatum’s swagger. I miss Marcus Smart’s maniacal hustle and ill-advised three pointers.

And I miss texting my friends about all of the above.

It’s been a week since the National Basketball Association suspended its 2019-20 season after a player tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. A handful more have tested positive since, including Smart.

And sportswriters have penned all the obligatory columns about how the outbreak has really put things in perspective. About how sports really don’t matter in times like these.


But I’m not sure they believe it. I know I don’t. I say we bring back the NBA as soon as we reasonably can.

Spend a little time surveying our fractured culture — flipping past the cable news shouters and diving down the online wormholes — and it quickly becomes clear that sports is our last great communal experience. The only bona fide cross-cultural, cross-generational phenomenon we have left. And our best hope for lifting morale in a lonely moment like this one.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Restarting the NBA or getting Major League Baseball going in the next couple of months would require significant concessions to the moment. I’m talking empty stadiums and quarantined players — a strange facsimile of the real thing.

But that’s OK. That would be the beauty of it, really.

Watching LeBron James bring the ball up the court in a quiet arena, the sound of his dribble echoing off the seats, would feel uncomfortable at first. But ultimately, it would be a fortifying tribute to human adaptation. A small, but important, nod to normalcy. A chance to connect from living room to living room.


Apparently, NBA commissioner Adam Silver is thinking along the same lines.

On Wednesday night, he floated the idea of a return without fans in an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. “Presumably,” he said, “if we had a group of players, and staff around them, and you could test them and follow some sort of protocol, doctors and health officials may say it’s safe to play.”

Alternatively, he suggested, the league could isolate a smaller group of players and allow them to play — “maybe it’s for a giant fundraiser or just the collective good of the people.”

“Because people are stuck at home," he continued, "and I think they need a diversion. They need to be entertained.”

In times like these, the games matter. They always have.

IN JANUARY OF 1942, just a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, sent a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking for his guidance.

“The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for Spring training camps,” he wrote. “However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate.”

“Health and strength to you,” he wrote at the close of his note, “and whatever else it takes to do this job.”

Roosevelt, who had nearly lost his job as a young lawyer for sneaking off to Giants games, quickly replied.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” he wrote, in what has come to be known as “the green light letter.”


The American people would be toiling long hours, he wrote, “and that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Some of baseball’s biggest stars — including Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Hank Greenberg — were pressed into military service during World War II. And the game suffered. It was, in the memorable phrase of sportswriter Frank Graham, “the tall men against the fat men at the company picnic.”

But the game was a morale booster, nonetheless, and a connection to the front lines.

Proceeds from exhibition games went to the Army-Navy relief fund. Subscribers to Baseball Digest got a discount if they bought a second subscription for a serviceman. And when soldiers wanted to make sure that approaching forces were American, they would test them with the question “Who won the World Series?”

This was not just an American phenomenon.

Over in Britain, professional soccer shut down shortly after the declaration of war; authorities worried that large gatherings would be easy targets for enemy bombing. But when the bombing didn’t immediately materialize — the Blitz was some time off — soccer started up again.

The competition was regional, to limit travel. And the teams were constantly in flux, drawing on “guest” players who happened to be stationed nearby at game time. Mass Observation, an organization founded in 1937 to track public opinion, found overwhelming public support for keeping the game going.


“Sports like football have an absolute effect on the morale of the people,” the organization reported in 1940, “and one Saturday afternoon of games could probably do more to affect people’s spirits than the recent £50,000 Government poster campaign urging cheerfulness.”

Anton Rippon, British sportswriter and author of “Gas Masks for Goal Posts: Football in Britain During the Second World War,” told me in an email that the matches “helped give the nation a sense of normality in abnormal times,” even if they weren’t of the same quality as pre-war play.

“For them — and for us I suppose — it was just a lift," said Frank Broome, the former British international player, "a bit of a tonic to help forget all the bad news for a while.”

It was also, at times, an act of defiance.

Rippon recalled a match between England and Scotland in Hampden Park in Glasgow in May 1940, at a particularly difficult moment in the war for the Allies.

The German propaganda machine warned of a bombing run by the Luftwaffe before halftime. And for anyone who hadn’t heard, the looming barrage balloons, enormous inflatables with steel cables designed to dissuade airborne attack, were a grim reminder of the constant threat. Perhaps it was no surprise, Rippon wrote, that the stadium was only half-full. But that was still some 70,000 fans — each of them, in their own way, shaking a fist at Hitler.


THIS IS NOT a time to find solace in big crowds.

The coronavirus culture sprouting all over the globe is connection at a remove.

It’s Italians singing to each other from porch to porch — an idea that has caught on here in Boston. It’s shuttered Chinese night clubs turning to “cloud clubbing,” with DJs broadcasting live sets online. And it’s the Philadelphia Orchestra streaming a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies and “Jeder Baum spricht,” a new piece by Iman Habibi.

It’s brilliant, inspiring stuff. But it’s not enough.

Did you catch “Jeder Baum spricht?” Neither did I.

Even before the new coronavirus sent us into isolation, we were an atomized society. There was no shared culture, no appointment television — except for sports.

Sports transcended race and culture. And it had an unmatched appeal in both red- and blue-state America.

But the bonds I’m interested in are more personal.

Fandom brings grandparent and grandchild together. And — here I speak from personal experience — it’s a connective tissue for middle-aged friends separated by middle-aged responsibilities.

I haven’t been to a Celtics game in a long time. I didn’t make it to Fenway Park once last year. And I’ve never been to Liverpool to see my favorite soccer team. Sports, for me, is a 10:30 p.m. text chain with a couple of friends about Marcus Smart’s latest finger in the eye of the basketball gods. It’s a way to connect, pod to pod, on a Tuesday night.

And when my team does the extraordinary, it’s something more: a visceral, communal shout — best heard at a bar surrounded by other fans, perhaps, but still a thrill when it leaps from the living room next door or the Twitter feed on my phone.

That’s community at a social distance.

I WAS A little nervous when I called Boston College epidemiologist Nadia Abuelezam to test my idea of bringing back professional sports in the time of pandemic.

But she was surprisingly sympathetic. She’s a basketball fan and was disappointed by the abrupt end to the season.

“I’m torn about this question,” Abuelezam said. “I see the value in having some sports on television, having something to root for.”

But from an epidemiological perspective, she cautioned, there would be a lot to think through. How would the ball be sanitized? What about the locker room? And if a player tested positive in the midst of the resumed season, she said, you’d have to put his teammates and recent opponents in quarantine — disrupting the schedule.

She’s right, of course.

But she entertained my musings on how the NBA — with its relatively small number of players and core staff — could return sooner than expected.

Research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health shows that it takes a median of 5.1 days for symptoms of coronavirus infection to appear and that some 98 percent of infected people develop symptoms with 12 days. That means players who are quarantined for two weeks before they play — and remain in a sort of traveling quarantine once the games begin — should be in the clear. And as testing becomes more widely available, it would be possible to keep even closer tabs on players’ health.

None should be required to play if they’re worried about their health or if family circumstances prevent them from staying in quarantine; baseball survived without Williams and DiMaggio. But many, no doubt, would be eager to get back on the court — even if it required some personal sacrifice.

Silver, the NBA commissioner, suggested as much in his interview with ESPN. “I have heard from a lot of our players,” he said. “It’s only been, it’s actually been less than a week, they’re going stir crazy, they want to play, they want to compete.”

Even if professional sports don’t return as quickly as we’d like, they may come back sooner than we think.

Abuelezam says getting back to something like normal after the worst of the pandemic won’t be a matter of “flipping a switch.” It will be more gradual than that.

Older and more vulnerable populations may be advised to stay at home a while longer, for instance, while younger people are given greater leeway to venture out into public — even as they’re cautioned to remain at a physical distance from others.

And in this in-between phase, Abuelezam says, she could imagine professional sports coming back to life. Maybe it’s not basketball that returns first. Maybe it’s baseball or tennis, which put more distance between competitors.

I’ll take what I can get.

But like I said: I miss the Celtics.

This story has been updated to include the comments of NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.