It seemed like months ago since Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus and became the catalyst of the NBA shut down, but it’s only been a few weeks.
Never has there been more truth to the term “24 hour news cycle” during this current crisis. This cataclysmic world event has spiralled so far out of control that frightening new developments occur every day.
It is clear life on Earth won’t be the same and humans may have to change the way they live forever. At the very least, the sporting world will suffer a devastating blow as we patiently await a vaccine that will allow us to return to regular society.
In Australia, the NBL was fortunately a majority of the way through their season, having played 3 out of 5 finals games before finally pulling the plug. But the minor and development leagues throughout the country have been suspended as well, crippling Basketball Australia.
The National Rugby League was already on a financial tightrope before COVID-19. They knew that if the season was suspended, it would not return the same. Although the AFL is in a fairer state financially, it too could experience a severe fallout after also being cancelled.
That brings me to the NBA. The season had started poorly to begin with. After Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted support to protesters in Hong Kong, the NBA faced harsh sanctions from China, with some NBA players suffering the backlash directly. The NBA scrambled to repair their relationship, drawing considerable criticism from both western and Chinese audiences.
Then, on New Years Day 2020, the former commissioner of the NBA David Stern died, three weeks after suffering a brain haemorrhage. His contributions to the league were immeasurable as he piloted the NBA into the digital age.
Then, 27 days later, the basketball world suffered another tragic loss when Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna perished in a helicopter crash. There is no doubt that the NBA wouldn’t be the global force it is today if it weren’t for Kobe Bryant, and Gianna Bryant was on the path to follow in her father’s legacy. All of this resulted in a sombre tone across the league, but no one could predict what would happen next.
There was a brief spell of positivity following the All Star Weekend, which many saw as a blistering success, and a heartfelt memorial to Kobe Bryant (held a week later on the 24th). But as teams began to make the final push for the playoffs, news was spreading of a possible global pandemic.
By February 24, 80,000 people had already been infected with COVID-19, and the infamous Diamond Princess was off the shores of Yokohama. February 24 was also the day that Iran’s deputy health minister tested positive for the disease. February now seems like a lifetime away.
It was March Madness, but not in the good way. Talks between teams were underway as they figured out how to continue to play if an outbreak occured in America. The idea of playing games with only the players and essential staff was floated and seemed definite at one point, despite LeBron James saying he won’t play without fans. Lucky for him, he wouldn’t have to make that choice.
Only four days after James’ comment, the Thunder vs Jazz game was halted moments before tip-off, as a medical staff member came racing out onto the hardwood to inform the referees of the situation. Fans were sent away, the Thunder were sent home, but the Utah Jazz had to stay behind in the Stadium. Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. The rest of the team and staff would be tested over the next few days and quarantined for 2 weeks.
Meanwhile, rumours emerged of discontent among the Jazz at Rudy Gobert, especially after the centre mocked hygiene directions by touching reporter’s mics after a post-game interview several days before.
The league was now in limbo. One after another, teams began locking down their players and closing stadiums. Almost immediately NBA players jumped to the aid of stadium workers who had been stood down, paying for their wages weeks before the US Government even took the virus seriously.
However, the question remained: how long would this shutdown last, and what will happen to the rest of the season?
Immediately after the cancellation, the league was looking at a June return. However, as the situation worsened in the US, that was seeming less and less unlikely. Players associations and teams were preparing for a complete cancellation. In this situation, the players would most likely take a pay cut of 1% per game, which would equal around 25% for most players.
Commissioner Adam Silver has said that no decision will be made until at least May, however a report from ESPN claims that the NBA and the NBPA are experimenting with “multiple blood-testing devices” which would allow for rapid tests of players. The league does stress that this is an exploratory phase, but the general consensus around the league is that games wouldn’t continue unless this technology is utilised.
Alternatives have been floated around other sporting codes as well. Both the NRL in Australia and the UFC are currently attempting a ‘Survivor’-style island solution.
The NRL will discuss this week the viability of holding the entire season at a resort 40km from Brisbane after the NSW government said they would not stand in the way of the league’s return. Meanwhile Dana White is in the process of securing his own private island and building the infrastructure needed to house fighters and broadcast UFC matches.
Either way, this is the state of the league at the moment. Suspended in time.
In the meantime, ESPN is broadcasting a 2K tournament between NBA players in isolation to tie fans over, and there are rumours of a H-O-R-S-E style competition run by the NBA and ESPN to take place in player’s private courts.
Whatever the decision, I think fans can be safely assured that the NBA will return, we just don’t know when.