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LeBron James speaks on possibility of playing in empty arenas as NBA makes coronavirus plans

The NBA has encouraged players to fist-bump instead of exchange high-fives as the coronavirus continues to spread. (John Leyba/AP)
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The coronavirus outbreak continues to be a concern across sports, including in the NBA, which has been taking precautions as it spreads. But Friday night, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James brushed off the notion that the virus might soon force games to be held in empty arenas. His comments came despite a memo from the league office instructing teams to prepare for that eventuality and make contingency plans to reduce the size of traveling parties.

“I play for the fans; that’s what it’s all about,” James said. “If I show up to the arena and there ain’t no fans there, I ain’t playing.”

The tenor of James’s remark contrasted with what has been discussed by the league. The stark realities of the coronavirus have set in, prompting team meetings, updated protective measures at arenas and altered travel behavior.

“With no disrespect to LeBron, this is a public health crisis that’s bigger than any one person,” said a high-ranking team executive, pointing to large-scale quarantine efforts overseas and a rising death toll domestically. “Personally, I think there’s a good chance we will be forced to play games in empty arenas at some point. The virus is spreading quickly, it’s not contained, and it will not be contained any time soon. The threat [to NBA players and fans] could carry on into next season.”

Another team executive called James’s comment “shortsighted” and “not helpful” given the need to inform the public on the dangers of the coronavirus, which had killed more than 20 people in the United States and infected more than 100,000 people globally as of Sunday. Numerous soccer leagues in Europe and Asia have canceled games or played them without fans. And NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament games were played in an empty gym at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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“We aren’t exempt,” the executive said. “I’m concerned for [the health of] myself and my kids, and I’m scared for my parents [given their age]. This is an unprecedented test for [President Trump] and our health-care system, let alone the NBA. We don’t know where this is going, and it could get really, really bad. That’s not being alarmist. That’s the truth.”

James’s Lakers were one of many teams to hold informational meetings about the coronavirus over the past few days. Those meetings have tended to focus on preventive tips, such as washing hands, using hand sanitizer and avoiding unnecessary contact with fans while giving autographs or taking photographs. Earlier this month, the NBA encouraged players to bump fists rather than high-five during games, but that advice hasn’t been widely followed.

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After a Monday conference call in which the NBA and its teams discussed implementing new restrictions governing contact between players and media members, the league issued a joint statement with MLB, the NHL and MLS announcing plans to temporarily curtail the media’s customary access to locker rooms before and after games.

“After consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, and given the issues that can be associated with close contact in pre- and post-game settings, all team locker rooms and clubhouses will be open only to players and essential employees of teams and team facilities until further notice," the statement read. “Media access will be maintained in designated locations outside of the locker room and clubhouse setting. These temporary changes will be effective beginning with [Tuesday’s] games and practices.”

The Professional Basketball Writers Association issued a statement Monday saying that, given the health and safety considerations involved, it “understood” the media-access changes “with the NBA’s promise that once the coronavirus crisis abates, the league will restore full access to the journalists who cover the league.”

Meanwhile, teams have started to take additional precautions at their arenas, including the installation of hand sanitizer canisters and the deployment of commercial-grade sanitizer during postgame cleanup efforts. The Golden State Warriors posted signs at Chase Center, explicitly warning fans that “attending tonight’s game could increase your risk of contracting coronavirus.” Those signs were put up Friday, shortly after California declared a state of emergency and San Francisco’s public health department recommended that all “nonessential large gatherings should be canceled or postponed.”

Team staffers also met this weekend to develop plans of action if the coronavirus outbreak worsens, per the league’s request. In its most recent memo, the NBA instructed each team to enlist a disease specialist, establish testing procedures and locations, and determine which employees would be essential members of their traveling parties in the event that the coronavirus spreads dramatically before the end of the season. ESPN and the Athletic first reported the contents of the memo, which mandated that teams report back to the NBA about their progress Tuesday.

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Travel plans are already changing. Some league personnel who had planned to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston this past weekend opted not to go, while others who did attend awkwardly avoided high-fives and agonized over the risk of exposure.

“The whole thing was weird,” said an executive who attended, noting that the South by Southwest festival, which was scheduled for later this month in Austin, was canceled because of coronavirus fears. “We were asking each other whether we should have even been there.”

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association remain in daily contact as the league’s plans unfold, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Many coaches and players have been reluctant to speak publicly about the coronavirus because of the high stakes and its unexpected arrival during the middle of the playoff push.

“The NBA and its teams are seeking the most accurate information and distributing it as quickly as possible,” one team executive said. “This is the real deal. LeBron’s heart was in the right place, but [fans] should listen to the [medical] experts.”