NEW YORK – Unprecedented.
The NBA suspended its season indefinitely on Wednesday after a Utah Jazz player—All-Star center Rudy Gobert, a source familiar with the situation confirmed to SI.com—tested positive for COVID-19. The coronavirus has spread across more than 100 countries, causing a global pandemic. In a statement, the NBA said it “will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward.”
The decision shocked millions.
It shouldn’t have.
The NBA did the only responsible thing. The coronavirus is spreading everywhere. New U.S. cases pop up by the hour. President Donald Trump suspended all travel from Europe on Wednesday. Worldwide cases are numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Deaths are climbing. It isn’t contained. There is no known cure.
And now an NBA player has it. This was always the league’s nightmare scenario. On a conference call with team owners on Wednesday, there was a frank discussion about ways to save the season, a source familiar with the call told SI.com. Owners weren’t wild about the idea of playing in front of empty arenas, but it beat the alternative of suspending play and losing hundreds of millions in television revenue.
This, though, was the game changer. A player tests positive, he’s quarantined. His teammates are quarantined. His recent opponents will have to get tested, and perhaps quarantined. Even if the opponents play, wiping an entire team off the schedule simply isn’t workable. This was always the event that triggered the nuclear option.
“I think it’s a smart move for the NBA to do this,” said Nuggets forward Paul Millsap.
Added Mavericks guard J.J. Barea, “I think it’s a great decision by the NBA. They know what they’re doing. I think it’s better to be careful. Do it now rather than do it later.”
The arguments for playing, when there were arguments for playing, were that these were the finest athletes in the world. So a couple may pop for coronavirus—so what? To an elite athlete, coronavirus amounts to little more than the sniffles. Heck, Gobert felt well enough to play when he learned his diagnosis.
But that misses the point. An NBA player may be fine. But what about the friends of the NBA player? What about the family of the player? What about the friends and family of those friends and family? This is how a virus spreads, and at this point no one has any idea to stop this one.
“This is people’s lives at stake,” said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. “This isn’t about basketball, this isn’t about the Mavericks, this isn’t about when do we start or will we start—this is a global pandemic. People’s lives are at stake. I’m a lot more worried about my kids or my Mom … than I am about when we play our next game.”
Still: How long will the NBA stay shuttered? The short answer: No one knows. “There is currently no timetable,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. In an ideal world, within a few weeks the spread of the virus slows and teams can return safely, perhaps in empty arenas. The season could be resumed, the playoffs finished and months later, hopefully, everything returns to normal.
But league officials understand this could get worse before it gets better. The rate the virus is spreading isn’t slowing. Health officials are cracking down on large gatherings. Before the NBA suspended play, the Warriors were preparing to hold a game in an empty arena. Ohio was urging teams to play in empty arenas. D.C., too. State of emergencies were being declared everywhere.
While acknowledging the fluidity of the situation, several team and league officials expressed skepticism that the season could be salvaged.
Can the NBA still pursue a plan to play in empty arenas? Maybe, but that still doesn’t mitigate the risk for players, who could easily spread the virus throughout the league. ESPN reported that the last five teams who played the Jazz are being asked to self-quarantine, and officials for several other teams told SI.com it’s likely all their players will be tested in the coming days.
The coronavirus needs to be contained nationally before the NBA can consider a return.
A lost season would be crippling, but there may not be an alternative.
The NBA made a hard choice on Wednesday. But it was the only one.