How the Hawks Are Staying Engaged During the NBA's Hiatus

Ben Ladner

Last Sunday, as the Hawks began their team meeting over Zoom, Lloyd Pierce everyone’s microphone unmuted, and for the first time in weeks, the team was all in the same place -- virtually, at least -- talking as they normally would. The team, like the rest of the world, is still grappling with the unfamiliarity of these times. The Hawks conduct most of their business these days over video, if not in complete isolation. Players and coaches around the NBA have been carefully following social distancing measures since the league shut down on March 11 and the novel coronavirus has spread across the country.

During Sunday’s meeting, Kevin Huerter asked Pierce when the team practice facility might re-open. Pierce said it would be closed at least through April, and asked how many players, by show of hands, thought the NBA season would resume. Slightly less than half of them expressed optimism, though none could say with any certainty what the future held.

“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to manage a day, every single day.” Pierce said on Friday in a press conference over Zoom. “That reality is really the challenge that we’re all facing.”

Professional athletes are hunkering down more comfortably than the rest of the world during this global social distancing phase, but unlike many Americans, NBA players don’t have the option of working from home as the nation shelters in place. Last month, the league banned players from using team practice facilities, and save for the rare player with access to a gym, it has been unusually challenging to stay in shape and connected to basketball.

“They’re used to routine, they’re used to their habits, they’re used to direction, they’re used to having that timeline,” Pierce said. “How long have they been completely out of routine and out of rhythm, and how long will it take [to get back into shape]?”

Jeff Teague, Brandon Goodwin, and Kevin Huerter have access to gyms, while Trae Young has a court on his driveway in Oklahoma, where he relocated after the NBA season stopped; for them, working out can be as simple as mustering the energy to get off the couch. Other players, like Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando, don’t have the same freedom. Their apartment complexes have closed their gyms and weight rooms, and the increasing restrictions on using parks and gyms around Atlanta make it difficult to do much beyond body-weight workouts at home.

“I can’t tell these guys, ‘Hey, can you find access to a gym?’ That would be bad management on my part,” Pierce said. “If they have access, they have a driveway, that’s up to them and that’s there. But for me to encourage them to run around trying to find access to a gym is not smart.”

That obstacle leaves players with much more free time than ever, and Pierce with the challenge of keeping his team connected and focused during a singularly bizzarre time in NBA history. Last week, he presented his assistant coaches with two questions to guide them during the hiatus: How can we help our players right now, and what do we want them to get out of this experience?

The team will continue having weekly team meetings over Zoom on Sundays, and plans on breaking players into small groups with coaches to provide an outlet for conversation and a way to formulate a productive approach to the hiatus. On Wednesday night, Pierce had a video chat with David Fizdale, J.B. Bickerstaff, and Phil Handy (among others), and has spoken with other head coaches around the league about how best to keep players engaged with basketball as the sport feels increasingly distant.

Even if players can’t actually play basketball right now, they’re being encouraged to use their extra time to watch film, study the game, and reflect on how they can improve once they get back on the court. Pierce has prescribed Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist for Reddish, Fernando, and De’Andre Hunter to read during the break, and provided players with film of games from this season to pore over.

“What can we do that’s more productive than video games [and] Netflix?” Pierce said. “What can you guys do at this time that will help you become better people? What hobbies can you pick up? How can you be more productive as a basketball player?”

Between phases of productivity, however, there’s still plenty of time for video games, Netflix, and other means of distraction. Several players, like Young and Goodwin, have passed the time playing NBA 2K or making videos on Twitter or TikTok. Vince Carter continues to record his podcast, while De’Andre Hunter recently rolled out a documentary series about his journey to the NBA. Others have simply kept a low profile and enjoyed having some space to breathe. Pierce has watched “Ozark” and “Bad Boys” recently, as well as the much-discussed “Tiger King” documentary. “I’ve seen everything,” he says.

(For the record, Pierce says he believes “without a doubt” that Carole Baskin murdered her husband, Don Lewis. “That is by far one of the craziest seven-show series,” he added. “I don’t know what reality those people have been in with the big cats and the back-and-forth. Just think of the back-and-forth that they’ve had for so many years out of just spite. They just hate each other. It’s unbelievable.” Young, a native Oklahoman, grew up about an hour away from Joe Exotic’s zoo, and insisted to the rest of the team that Exotic does not, in fact, represent all Oklahomans.)

2019-20 Season Review: By the Numbers

Somehow, data has become a lightning rod in NBA discourse as players and teams have begun integrating it more heavily into their decision-making. The strawman argument that one must believe solely in analytics or dismiss them entirely has fueled many a senseless online basketball discussion, but in reality, most people fall somewhere between those two poles.

It’s unclear if or when the NBA season will return, and how much COVID-19 will affect the 2020-21 season. The pandemic has only gotten worse since March 11, and increasingly stringent public safety measures make it seem unlikely that close-proximity contact sports like basketball will return anytime in the near future. In all likelihood, Altanta has played its last game of the 2019-20 season, and on Friday, Pierce seemed hopeful, but not optimistic that the sport will pick back up. “My gut feeling is … there will be an attempt to resume the season in some capacity,” he said. “Some days I just look at it and say ‘I have no idea how this is gonna happen.’”

Whether this season finishes out or not, Pierce hopes that this forced distance from the game will give players and coaches alike a renewed appreciation for it. If nothing else, this NBA season has reminded us all how suddenly the things we love can be taken away. Right now, no one understands that better than the players themselves.

“They want that feeling back, they want that routine back, they want that discipline back, they want that competition, that challenge back,” Pierce said. “When we get back to normalcy, hopefully we’re all a little bit better in taking it less for granted than we may have before.” 

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