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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Reopening training facilities is just the beginning of the NBA’s risky road back

It's unlikely the Celtics will reopen their training facility on May 8 since the state's stay-at-home order has been extended until May 18.Maddie Meyer/Getty

The NBA is offering the rest of the sports world a glimmer of optimism by setting a potential May 8 date to begin reopening practice facilities in states that have relaxed their stay-at-home orders.

The league is determined to resume the season, even if it means playing games with no fans (which is almost a certainty) and choosing one city in which to resume the regular season and the playoffs.

The best scenario may be a play-in tournament for the eighth seed in each conference, leaving out teams that had no chance to reach the playoffs to lessen the risk of medical issues with COVID-19.


On Monday, the league released its guidelines for how player workouts would resume: no group activities, players aren’t allowed to use non-NBA workout facilities such as gyms and fitness centers, only four players allowed into practice facilities at one time and no coaches can participate in the workout.

So if the Celtics are able to persuade the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to reopen the Auerbach Center on May 8, they would likely schedule four-player shifts throughout the day for workouts until the league authorizes organized practices. This week, Governor Charlie Baker extended the state’s stay-at-home order until May 18.

The NBA is making this move because if the season is to resume, players are going to need several weeks to get back into basketball shape.

Another encouraging sign was provided by Rand McClain, a doctor of osteopathic and regenerative medicine in Santa Monica, Calif., who has dealt with professional athletes.

McClain said it’s possible for the NBA to resume under a controlled environment and with widespread testing of players, team officials, and hotel and arena employees.

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“I think it all boils down to two things: medically risk assumption, what are you willing to risk?” he said. “And financially, what do you have on the table? What are you willing to spend? Do you want to curtail the hemorrhaging or take the [financial] loss and go on to next year?”


The NBA was the first sports league to stop play after Utah center Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 11. His teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive, and a week later, the Celtics’ Marcus Smart revealed he had the virus. Other NBA players and team employees have also tested positive. The fact that there were several positive tests has made the NBA even more cautious about a resumption.

Commissioner Adam Silver has consulted with medical experts, and the opening of practice facilities is a significant step. But can the NBA really, safely resume?

“It’s a little more difficult with the NBA because it’s a contact sport,” McClain said. “You’re posting up, getting in people’s faces in basketball, so it’s a little bit different. There are different risks that you’re asking the players to assume here. That’s the crux of the matter, are the players willing to assume that [medical] risk? Keeping the fans out of the stadium, that’s a no-brainer.

“We should have enough testing in place and that’s going to need to be part of the program. Testing regularly is important. And then it’s up to the players to decide, ‘If we all agree, we’re going to do the regular testing,’ and we have a relatively clean group and then it’s a matter of keeping guys from being exposed to the disease during the season.


“We should be able to pull it off.”

Resuming the NBA would mean a level of isolation for the players. They would have to be kept in controlled environments and tested consistently. Are players willing to make that sacrifice? And what happens if a player tests positive in the middle of the playoffs? Are the games suspended again? Or can that player be removed and treated while other players test again and are cleared to play?

The NBA, as with other professional and college sports leagues, is hoping some testing advancements are made in the next few weeks, which could create a climate in which players and teams feel comfortable with resumption. On Wednesday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed optimism about the antiviral medication remdesivir, which reduced the recovery time from COVID-19 in a recent study.

Hypothetically, the NBA would like to begin clearing teams for practice later this month, and teams could conceivably spend June preparing for a truncated end of the regular season and playoffs in one location. The league would resume in July and conclude in September, trying not to intersect with the NFL opening day or the beginning of college football. That is the ideal plan but the NBA is still in the information-gathering phase on how to approach a return.


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“Testing is going to be mandatory,” McClain said. “It will be taking too much risk [if there isn’t]. It’s going to come back to, ‘Hey guys, you want this to happen, then you’re going to have to shell out some coin for the testing.’ We landed on the moon. We can do this. But at what cost?”

What’s evident is that professional sports won’t be the same for a while, if ever again. If the NBA is going to be the first league to return, it is going to have to create a safe, structured environment for its players that has never existed for professional athletes.

“I can’t say the (NBA players) I work with represent everyone,” McClain said. “But I can say it’s a cross section when it comes to age and by and large, everyone wants to get back to playing. Everyone says, ‘I want to get back in the game and how do we do this Doc.’ I think most guys want to get back.”

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.