It was a long, strange spring for sports fans. And you can only imagine how it felt for the athletes who were supposed to be focused on competing, training and/or negotiating new deals, and not a heck of a lot else.
After the NBA abruptly suspended its season on March 11 when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, with five weeks to go before the playoffs were supposed to begin, the dominoes fell quickly. Within a few weeks practically everything else in the wide world of sports was subsequently shut down or canceled, from March Madness and the Little League World Series to horse racing’s Triple Crown and the 2020 Summer Olympics, with just about every level of competition in between snuffed out as reported cases of the novel coronavirus started to multiply.
Suffice it to say, league officials, organizers and players from all over the world, in every sport, have been trying to figure out what to do ever since, whether they’ve been hoping to salvage their halted seasons or, in the case of college football and the NFL, start their upcoming seasons on time.
It’s been more than three months and we’re still mid-pandemic, as well as in the thick of an exceptional amount of social unrest, and just about everything is up for debate—including whether sports should be happening right now at all. But the NBA has a plan they’re putting into motion with an eye on league play resuming July 30.
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It’s complicated and involves endless moving parts intended to keep the players and team staffers safe, with the ultimate hope being that there will be an NBA champion at the end of this unprecedented (the word of 2020, really) season—the first to have play interrupted for this long since the 2011 league lockout delayed the start of the 2011-12 season for almost two months.
“A lot of people have pointed to the financial component of this,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged last week during an appearance on ESPN’s The Return of Sports. “The incremental difference at this point between playing and not playing isn’t nearly as great as people think, especially given the enormous expense of putting this on.
“It’s more a sense from the entire NBA community that we have an obligation to try this. Because the alternative is to stay on the sideline. And the alternative is to, in essence, give in to this virus.”
Silver added, “Listen, it’s not an ideal situation. We’re trying to find a way to our own normal in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a recession—or worse—with 40 million unemployed, and now with enormous social unrest in the country.”
But so long as most of their players—including the likes of LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom are now balancing wider social justice concerns with their competitive fire and hunger to get back to the game they love—are ready to give it a try, they’re moving forward.
It’s an ever-evolving picture, but here is everything we know about the NBA’s massive undertaking to get players back on the court next month:
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Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
The 22 NBA teams (out of 30) with the best records will temporarily relocate to Orlando to live in what has widely been deemed “the bubble,” since contact with people on the outside for the duration of the season will be strictly limited. Each team will each play eight games to determine final seedings, followed by the usual 16-team playoff format. There will be single-elimination play-in games to determine the eighth seed for the Western and Eastern Conferences, unless the ninth-place team is more than four games back, in which case they’ll just go with the existing 1st-through-8th-place teams.
Mark Your Calendars
Eligible players are due to inform the league by June 24, 2020, on whether they plan on participating. Silver has said there will be no penalty for those who do not want to return due to the health risks or other concerns—though once you do decide to play, there is the possibility for fines, suspensions or removal if you don’t abide by the painstakingly laid out rules. (And there will be a tip line to anonymously report anyone violating protocol.)
The Toronto Raptors headed to Florida on Monday, but July 6 is the date everyone else is supposed to start checking in. “Regular”-season games are due to resume July 30, and the postseason could extend as far as Oct. 13, the date of a potential Game 7 should the NBA Finals go the distance.
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By the Numbers
113: Number of pages in the literature handed out to players detailing the efforts the NBA is taking to ensure everyone’s health in the bubble, per a copy obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
33: The number of pages in the player handbook detailing the rules and guidelines in Orlando. There’s also a packing list—like camp!
36-48: Number of hours of players and staffers must spend quarantining in their rooms upon arrival, during which they’ll take two COVID-19 tests at least 24 hours apart.
10: Number of days you have to spend in quarantine without game pay if you make an unauthorized trip outside the bubble.
4: Number of days of quarantine that may be required after an authorized excursion off campus.
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35: Number of people each team is allowed to bring, including between 13 and 17 players, as well as at least one senior executive, one athletic trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, an equipment manager and a team security official. Spots also may be allocated to “private player personnel,” such as personal trainers, massage therapists and security guards deemed essential to certain players’ well-being.
6: The number of feet any two people should remain away from each other, including during recreational activity.
3: Number of locations in the Wide World of Sports Complex where games will be held: the Visa Athletic Center, the HP Fieldhouse or the Arena.
0: Number of regular fans who will be in the stands watching these games. Instead, the audience will comprise owners, team staffers and other authorized spectators, including a handful of journalists who will be staying in the bubble; as well as some players from other teams.
17: Number of rooms each team can reserve for guests should they make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Once in the bubble, you stay in the bubble. Guests who leave will not be permitted to return.
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COVID-19 Prevention and Testing
Face coverings are required indoors except during meals (which will be served individually) or when folks are in their individual rooms. No one is allowed in each other’s rooms.
First-row coaches, players and referees do not have to wear masks during games.
No showering at the arena—all showering will be taking place in the players’ and staffers’ own individual bathrooms at the hotel.
Staffers in the bubble will be required, and players will have the option, to wear a device that will alert them if they get within more than 6 feet of another person for more than 5 seconds. The players will also be given smart rings that measure temperature, oxygen levels and other numbers that are an indicator of their overall health at any given moment.
If a player tests positive, he’ll move into isolated housing and be administered another test to rule out a false positive. If that’s positive as well, they’ll stay put (unless hospitalization is required) in quarantine until they’re symptom-free and certain CDC standards are met: two consecutive negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests more than 24 hours apart and clearance to resume activities from an infectious disease doctor. A contact-tracing program will be in effect and the health of anyone who was in close contact with the people who test positive will also be closely monitored.
Most Disney staffers aren’t being required to stay at the complex, but they’re the least likely to have any face to face interaction with the players. All workers will be required to have daily temperature checks and wear masks, regardless of their role. Rooms will be cleaned once a week by Disney housekeepers sporting a full kit of PPE.
Once everyone is situated and if all goes accordingly, there will be perks—or at least a wide array of amenities to make this summer as comfortable, and the least bizarre, as possible. The rosiest comparison is boarding a cruise ship for work and play—only with much more space, no one can touch each other and the boat doesn’t go anywhere.
Teams ranked 1 through 4 in either conference upon arrival are staying at the Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, while the 5-through-8 teams will move into Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The six other teams will be calling the Disney Yacht Club home.
And they all look pretty nice.
Players-only lounges in each hotel will be tricked out with video games, arcade games and ping-pong tables, as well as plenty of furniture for literal lounging.
Teams will stick to their own indoor training and meeting rooms, but they can take advantage of as many leisure activities as possible, including use of the resort pools, golf (no sharing carts), tennis, bowling, boating and fishing—the 6-feet, no-contact rule applies throughout. The NBA is also planning to offer VIP outdoor entertainment options such as movie screenings, DJ sets, live music and stand-up comedy, with audiences required to try to stay 6 feet apart from each other. Even outdoor card games are limited to six people at a time, with no deck of cards to be used more than once. And if they ante up indoors, they have to wear masks. Meanwhile, the NBA is said to be working on figuring out access to the nearby Disney World rides and attractions.
Team chefs will craft full daily menus befitting the players’ needs, but restaurants and bars will also be open for dine-in service (at 50 percent capacity) if they want to grab food and drinks on their own dime. And, bubble residents can book appointments with approved barbers, hair braiders, manicurists and pedicurists.
And to keep their minds in fighting shape, teams will have access to yoga, meditation, online chaplain meetings and mental health services.
To Each His Own
Though team members and staffers were being asked to stay home and practice social distancing as much as possible before leaving for Orlando, the NBA is making it clear they shouldn’t feel discouraged from leaving the house for matters that are important to them.
“These rules do not prohibit players and essential staff from engaging in protests; teams should invite such individuals who participate in protests to consult with a team physician regarding best practices to avoid contracting COVID-19 while doing so,” read the pertinent advisory in the NBA’s guidebook given to players.
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Taking a Timeout
Some players, such as the Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving (whose season officially ended in February with the announcement that he would be undergoing shoulder surgery), expressed concern during a Zoom call with more than 80 other players that going back to work would distract from the more existentially important work at hand: namely, the quest for justice and racial equality in the wake of protests first inspired by the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and that have since expanded to encompass a variety of related issues and honor a host of other lives lost.
The Nets are out of contention and not among the 22 teams going to Orlando, but Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard—who play for the probable No. 1 seed in the West—also reportedly had reservations and as of Tuesday neither had committed to either playing or not playing.
“The actual act of sitting out doesn’t directly fight systemic racism,” Bradley, who helped organize the player Zoom call, told ESPN. “But it does highlight the reality that without Black athletes, the NBA wouldn’t be what it is today. The league has a responsibility to our communities in helping to empower us—just as we have made the NBA brand strong.”
But even with those issues roiling and Florida’s reported COVID-19 cases rising, the NBA’s return plan was approved by the teams, 29-1 (the on-the-playoff-bubble Portland Trailblazers voted to consider other options for a return). In the meantime, Silver acknowledged that the players are all taking a risk and making sacrifices to get this season going again, and they’re being encouraged to use their platform to express their views however they see fit. Moreover, the league has promised that its efforts on behalf of social justice and racial equality will continue.
“They can do it as an individual and in their own cities and states that they play in or live in. But also too, they can together and say, ‘Let’s support this group or let’s do this together or let’s create this together,'” former Lakers player and team executive Magic Johnson said during last week’s “NBA Together Virtual Roundtable Session” with Adam Silver, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and retired NBA star Caron Butler, per the LA Times. “Black Lives Matter will continue. The protest will continue with the NBA playing. It’s not going to stop… You have to remember, this is a world-wide movement and so nothing is going to stop. It will continue.”