All Systems Are Go for USA Basketball During Coronavirus Pandemic

If the 2020 Tokyo Olympics go on as scheduled, the entire basketball tournament could look different with NBA stars sitting out due to the coronavirus spread.
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Jerry Colangelo picked up on the first ring, and he had to be tired of hearing from me.

“Nothing new,” Colangelo said. “Still monitoring like everyone else.”

Colangelo is in a tough spot. Like everyone, Colangelo watched the sports world grind to a halt because of the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, which has infected a quarter of a million people worldwide and more than 10,000 in the U.S. The NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer has suspended its seasons. At least 10 NBA players have been infected, including former MVP Kevin Durant.

But Colangelo has another problem. As managing director of USA Basketball, Colangelo is responsible for putting together the 2020 Olympic team. For months, Colangelo and his staff have been monitoring the 44 finalists for the U.S. team. The plan, Colangelo says, is to have a team assembled by early June. That team would have a minicamp in Las Vegas, play a couple of exhibition games overseas and then hit Japan for the start of the Games in mid-July.

“There’s really been no change on our end,” Colangelo said. “All systems are go until we are told it’s not.”

But things have changed. The NBA is on hiatus, but owners are hellbent on finding a safe way to finish the season. Should the coronavirus be contained in the coming months, the league is perfectly willing to stretch the season into July, even August.

That complicates thing. Colangelo’s finalists are all NBA players. His head coach is Gregg Popovich. USA Basketball and the NBA have formed a symbiotic relationship during Colangelo’s tenure, with an Olympic roster spot again becoming sought after and players using the experience to become better NBA players.

“Pop and I have spoken a couple of times over the last week or so," Warriors coach and USA Basketball assistant Steve Kerr said this week. "And everything's just up in the air. There's no sense of whether things are going to be delayed or anything. We're all kind of sitting here wondering what's going to happen, and so is the rest of the world. We're just going to plan as if this is going to happen, and we're going to try and put together a roster, and that's all we can do.”

If the Olympics go on as scheduled, Colangelo could be forced to assemble a team that resembles the Jalen Jones–led bunch from the AmeriCup qualifiers.

If the Olympics go on as scheduled, the entire basketball tournament could look different, with NBA stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic among the international players who could be unavailable.

If the Olympics goes on as scheduled.

That’s right—there are still people who think holding the 2020 Olympics is a good idea.

On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued a communique saying it remains fully committed to the Games. It said, “This is an unprecedented situation for the whole world, and our thoughts are with all those affected by this crisis. We are in solidarity with the whole of society to do everything to contain the virus. The situation around the COVID-19 virus is also impacting the preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and is changing day by day … with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive.”

Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, told The New York Times that “cancellation is not on the agenda.”

In short: Back off, don’t be mean to us and we’ll find a way to ram this home.

Right now, the biggest threat for the continued spread of coronavirus are the Brads and Chads playing beach volleyball and swapping keg stands in South Florida, the ones thinking coronavirus is the threat Vin Diesel faces in Fast 9. Right behind them is the IOC. Assume the best-case scenario: Within three months, there is worldwide containment. New infection rates plummet. The curve is flattened.

There will still be people infected. China is reporting no new locally transmitted cases. They still have more than 80,000 infected. No credible scientist will tell you a vaccine will be available in the next few months. Donald Trump blurted, without evidence, that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, decades-old malaria drugs, could be effective. No one believes the reported numbers reflect the actual number of infected worldwide.

But let’s say the coronavirus is contained by late June.

What’s the best way to pop the lid off?

Take some 11,000 athletes, more than half a million fans, pack them into one area for a month and then send them back to the 200-plus countries they came from.

It’s lunacy to think holding the Olympics this summer is a good idea. Coronavirus is a clear and present danger. It’s killed more than 10,000 worldwide. It’s not the zika virus, the mosquito-transmitted disease that raged through Brazil in 2016. Zika was primarily a threat to pregnant women. If you caught zika, you couldn’t go home and kill your grandmother.

Look—the Games are going to get postponed. World leaders have more pressing issues, but when the dust settles no reasonable leader whose country just kicked the coronavirus will be on board with participating in an event that could cause it to come roaring back. There’s no reason the Olympics can’t be postponed until 2021. There would have to be some compromises. Track and field would have to push back its world championships. Swimming, too. The athletes' village, set to become housing, may need to be moved.

The IOC doesn’t care. This isn’t about the integrity of the Games. Sell it as a financial win. They don’t want events played in empty stadiums. They don’t want top athletes no-showing. They don’t want out-of-shape athletes who spent months quarantined submitting Olympic-worst performances. Money is what matters. The IOC has been plagued by accusations of bribery and kickbacks. Officials travel like royalty. Show the IOC that these Games will be a financial disaster and see whether they budge.

The biggest threat to the continued spread of the coronavirus is a Summer Olympics.

If the IOC doesn’t get that, the rest of the world should.