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High-fives are out and fist bumps are in as NBA players try to stay relaxed in coronavirus era

LeBron James and Anthony Davis should move to the fist bump. (Nam Huh/AP)

As sports organizations around the world grapple with how to deal with the rapidly spreading coronavirus, the NBA has recommended that players replace that most common staple of sports celebrations, the high-five.

The fist bump (or elbow bump), it suggested in a memo, is a less infectious option. The league also urged players to avoid handling items from fans — such as pens, balls and jerseys — for autographs. “The coronavirus remains a situation with the potential to change rapidly,” the league’s memo stated.

A team executive confirmed the memo’s contents to The Washington Post. It was first reported by ESPN.

The league and the National Basketball Players Association have been in communication with experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ESPN reported. The memo also suggested that players make sure their vaccinations are current, “including the flu vaccine,” though it is not effective against the coronavirus.

Washington Wizards guard Ish Smith is one player who has been careful. He has constantly washed his hands and has been cognizant not to touch his face so often. And Smith, whose Wizards visited the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night, has not panicked.

“What’s funny is you can have like a regular cold or maybe I might [cough] because we’ve been traveling and people are like: ‘Ohh! You got [it]!’ ” Smith said Tuesday morning. “Nah, bro. Relax.”

The Wizards were in the middle of their West Coast road trip when the league sent the memo advising players to engage fans with fist bumps over handshakes. The team directed all inquiries about its organizational response to the coronavirus to the NBA.

Although the memo made news, the response from several Wizards players was universal: Stay calm and play basketball.

“It’s not crazy high,” Smith said of his level of concern. “I think for me, I think maybe it’s three, four, I don’t know, because it hasn’t affected anybody that’s kind of close. Usually when it hits close to home, that’s when it kind of hits you. But I’m just praying for everybody to be healthy and for this thing to kind of die on out so people can get back to their regular scheduled programming because you know how we do. We get extreme when something’s bad.”

The coronavirus, a respiratory illness, has infected thousands of people across the globe. The outbreak’s epicenter is in China, but the virus has emerged in several countries, including the United States, as it has continued to spread.

“The health and safety of our employees, teams, players and fans is paramount,” the NBA said in a statement. “We are coordinating with our teams and consulting with the CDC and infectious disease specialists on the coronavirus and continue to monitor the situation closely.”

The worldwide death toll for the coronavirus has topped 3,000. Nationally, it has been reported in 15 states.

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Wizards forward Davis Bertans said he has followed the news about the virus, but he hasn’t gone to extreme measures to change his normal routine. “I’m not that worried about it,” he said.

“For people our age [who are] healthy, there are no issues,” Bertans said. “I think at some point it’s going to become a common flu for everybody. Now it’s spreading and everybody is afraid and scared, but, you know, [a disease like this] happens every 10 years.”

Bertans is the father of a baby girl, and his teammate Bradley Beal has two young children. Both players mentioned how their significant others have taken measures back home. The fathers on the road, however, plan to wash their hands and carry on.

“I take precautions and being mindful of where I put my hands and what I touch,” Beal said. “It’s tough because we don’t really know anything about it.”

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Other players are paying attention, too. Bobby Portis of the New York Knicks offered fist bumps before a game against the Houston Rockets on Monday night, explaining simply, “Corona.”

Portland’s CJ McCollum tweeted that he is “officially taking a break from signing autographs until further notice.” He went on to retweet NBC News’s series of recommendations and noted that “fist pounds” are better than high-fives and “cleanliness is next to godliness. Stay germ free.”

There is presently no way to prevent coronavirus, and tests aren’t widely available.

In the past, the NBA and other sports leagues have taken steps to limit outbreaks of, among other bugs, swine flu. In the fall of 2009, it issued a memo stating that if a player has flu-like symptoms, he must be seen by a doctor, and if he has a fever, he must not travel and must stay away from teammates.

Ben Golliver contributed to this report. Buckner reported from Sacramento.