It was one month ago today that Thunder trainer Donnie Strack, wearing a suit, raced up to the referees just moments before tip-off of Utah in Oklahoma City to tell them Jazz center Rudy Gobert had just tested positive for the coronavirus.
Soon after, the game was canceled. Games being played went on as scheduled, but that night the New Orleans game at Sacramento was called off because one of the referees had worked a Jazz game a couple of nights before.
That was the last day any of us saw NBA basketball live. The NBA was shut down.
One month later, we know little more than we did then.
“When we initially shut down, we were calling it a hiatus or a pause. There was no sense our country would be shut down. In some ways, I know less now than I did then…” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said less than a week ago. “I’ve told my folks that we should just accept that for the month of April, we won’t be in a position to make any decisions. That doesn’t mean on May 1st, we will be. It’s just, honestly, too early to project or predict where we will be in the next few weeks.”
That hasn’t changed.
Ten NBA players — including Gobert and Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell, plus stars such as Kevin Durant and Marcus Smart — tested positive for the disease. Fortunately, none were seriously ill. Multiple people on team staffs, including Knicks owner James Dolan, also tested positive.
Nationally, more than 18,500 people have died from the disease — the United States has passed Italy for the nation with most deaths due to COVID-19 — and nearly 500,000 people have tested positive. While there are models and projections — which show the stay-at-home and social distancing orders are working — nobody knows for sure when the peak of the disease in the United States will be.
Nobody knows when life will return to something resembling pre-coronavirus normal.
Which leaves the NBA stuck in limbo, along with all major sports.
The health and safety of the players remains paramount, but there is no money coming into the league at the gate right now and teams are taking a financial hit (like nearly every other business nationwide). There have been team staff layoffs and salary reductions (with more to come). While that pain has yet to hit players with cuts in pay, that is coming. All of that will add pressure to Adam Silver to get the league playing again.
NBA staff — working from home, along with representatives of the players union — are trying to map out scenarios to return to play and find a way to crown a champion for this season.
The most likely way that happens is a “bubble” — bring all the players, coaches, training staffs, equipment managers, referees, plus broadcast crews and more — to one city, essentially quarantine them there creating a safe environment. Then games could be played, without fans, and televised. There might be some regular season games, although that seems like a long shot, and then a condensed playoff format.
This plan brings a lot of challenges. They have tried to do it in China and twice that basketball league had to push back its timeline.
Trainers who spoke to NBC Sports said they would like a month of a mini-training camp before games were played — needing time to ramp guys up and avoid injuries — but they don’t expect to get that. A scenario being bounced around would have two weeks of players in the bubble being able to work out individually (one player, one trainer, one half of the court) followed by two weeks of camp and some scrimmages. Then games.
That means telling NBA players they need to be isolated from their families and friends for more than a month to play these games. For teams advancing deep in even a shortened playoffs, it will be more than two months.
The NBA reportedly does not want to go deep into September with its playoffs, but working backward from that the league would need to create its “bubble” and get players in likely by about mid-June and playing in July.
For the NBA to pull this “bubble” off they need a venue — Las Vegas is the most-discussed destination — and they would need access to fast, accurate tests to detect the disease. The NBA and players union are looking at the testing availability, but finding tests that do not have a lot of false negatives has not been easy. Plus, the NBA does not want the perception it is pulling thousands of tests — and potentially the lab time to process them — away from hotspots of the disease that need them. As a nation, a lack of testing has hampered our ability to track and contain the virus; the NBA understands how that could look if tests are not widely and readily available.
There are other challenges with the bubble — keeping hotel staff, cooks, security, and everyone else around the bubble tested; players leaving the bubble to enjoy the distractions of Las Vegas or wherever — but the league is looking intently at this option.
Because it is their only option. Certainly for this season, maybe for the start of next season.
Who knows how long it will be before 18,000 people will feel safe and want to gather in an arena to watch LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo or anyone else play. Who knows when the kind of travel the traditional NBA schedule requires will be taking place. Unless the NBA wants to push the return of games until next December — something that comes with its own host of challenges, including NBA and MLB teams sharing regional broadcast networks — it’s tough to say what the start of next season will look like.
Right now, it’s tough to say what anything looks like.
Because one month since the NBA suspended its season, nobody knows what comes next. Nobody knows much more than we did a month ago.