Before I tell you about what is wrong with the NBA right now it’s important to tell you that I miss it. I want to go to TD Garden again. And when Celtics games end, I want to go home and turn on my television and watch LeBron and Giannis and other players we know by just their first names. It’ll be nice.
But there remain sizable hurdles to clear, and really, the NBA’s return is near the bottom of a list of things that should matter as COVID-19 continues to take the lives of about 2,000 Americans each day.
Commissioner Adam Silver has said he views the resumption of the season as a kind of civic obligation, both comforting fans with a much-needed distraction and giving the economy a boost. That first notion, which has been repeated by many around the league, is a bit flimsy.
There are about 325 million people in this country, and when regular-season games are broadcast nationally on ESPN and TNT, about 324 million are not watching. An average of about 3 million people watched first-round playoff games last year, or about one-third of the number viewing “The Masked Singer.” Our nation does not unite around a Clippers game; NBA Twitter does. Yes, the return of basketball would be great for fans, but let’s not pretend that there is a need to restart because the entire country is yearning for it.
As for the economy, yes, there are thousands of people who work at NBA arenas. It would be wonderful to get them back to work as soon as it is safe. But no one is going to be serving a hot dog or showing someone to their seat or working security or any of that anytime soon. Potentially restarting this season this summer in a bubble-like setting does not have much to do with them, or the restaurants that sit near the still-empty basketball venues.
The league’s real civic duty should have been acting more swiftly to ensure that fans who purchased tickets for games this season, many of whom have been walloped by this economy’s collapse, can finally get their refunds. Those refund policies, which are dictated by individual teams, have just begun to trickle out. The NBA has known for weeks that even if this season resumes in some form, there will be no fans in attendance. The fans should have had the opportunity to get their money back sooner.
The NBA continues to formulate a potential return plan, and it is doing it thoroughly. The biggest issue will be coronavirus testing. The league would have little problem procuring enough tests to hold the playoffs in some kind of enclosed setting, with players quarantined in Las Vegas or Disney World or wherever. But Silver has insisted that it would only do so if there was enough public testing available for everyone who needed it. This is the right approach, and it is also a sensitive topic.
Soon after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus on March 11, instantly shutting down the league, at least one third of the teams in the NBA acquired coronavirus tests, at a time when they were incredibly scarce.
Almost all the players were fully asymptomatic, mostly receiving tests because they had come in some contact with Gobert. Granted, we have since found out that asymptomatic carriers could be quite common, but no one knew that then. Nevertheless, that was a scattered time filled with fear and uncertainty, and it’s fair to believe that teams didn’t understand the scarcity. But it’s good that this time will be different.
Fairly often, I think back to that week the NBA shut down and wonder if more could have been done. On March 9, nearly 1,000 people in the US had already tested positive for the deadly virus that had raged across China and Europe, and the severe lack of testing made it quite obvious that the true number of cases was significantly higher. That day, the NBA joined the NHL, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer in restricting media locker room access, in addition to creating new interview guidelines that practiced social distancing.
It seemed like a halfhearted measure. If you’re going to keep media members six feet away from players because you — correctly — view the virus as a danger, you should not still let fans cram into arena seats, concession lines, bathrooms and public transportation to attend your events.
On March 10, thousands and thousands of fans attended a total of nine NBA games. Then four more games were completed on March 11, once again with fans, until the season was halted — thankfully — prior to Utah’s game against the Thunder. If Gobert had not tested positive that day, the games would almost certainly have rolled on the following night.
The NBA took sweeping action when it was left no other choice. This time, the choice will likely be more blurry.
Hopefully, by late summer, the virus will have relented, a true ‘bubble’ scenario will be plausible and the games can go on. But even then, there will be risks. ESPN reported last week that there would likely be about 1,500 people deemed essential in an enclosed NBA setting. There will be players and coaches, but there will also be league officials, security staffs, and hotel and food service workers. There will be people leaving their families and flying across the country to try to get basketball going.
It’s clear at this point that the league is not going to rush anything, and that part is comforting. But it should also be careful not to force anything. If for some reason no champion is crowned this year, we will all move on and be fine. If someone dies as a result of the NBA’s thirst to resume play, it would be crushing.
It has been heartening to hear how serious the league is about ensuring that safety remains the top priority, and hopefully it will stay that way, because when the games finally do come back, we certainly do not want to lose them again.