LOS ANGELES — Before Adam Silver could announce to the public the NBA’s response to the coronavirus, which was to suspend the 2019-20 season, the league commissioner faced a more immediate challenge: communicating the severity of the growing pandemic to team owners, executives and players.
Those who discussed the matter with The Washington Post spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to freely discuss the sensitive situation.
“I was shocked by the number of teams that were clueless at the size that [the coronavirus] would get to,” said one high-ranking executive privy to leaguewide conversations. “Some teams that hadn’t faced an outbreak in their communities didn’t think it was worth talking about.”
On Wednesday’s call, the executive continued: “There were two teams that were adamant that games should continue like normal until there was government intervention. ‘Why shut ourselves down?’ [My organization] viewed that [position] as completely irresponsible to our fans and community.”
The New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers expressed a desire to continue playing in front of fans, according to ESPN.com. In an interview with CNBC, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta said: “I would hope that we would just suspend for a week or two weeks. But you don’t want to play games with no fans. That’s never going to work.”
Executives who were on calls or had direct knowledge of calls with the NBA this week said the league office was progressing through a collaborative process in an orderly manner, soliciting opinion from all parties, issuing preparedness directives and building consensus around playing in empty arenas rather than postponing or delaying the season. Silver consulted with David Ho, a noted HIV/AIDS research pioneer; former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention throughout the response process, recognizing quickly that the coronavirus had the potential to be another in a series of crises for the league, which had previously dealt with strained relations with China and the death of Kobe Bryant this season.
The revelation Wednesday night that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus changed everything.
Had Gobert not tested positive, multiple executives said, they anticipated the NBA would have closed its arenas to fans Thursday without suspending regular season play. For a majority of teams, the prospect of playing games in front of fans was “untenable,” according to one executive, and sticking to the anticipated schedule was preferable than trying to move dates because of arena availability issues. A person with knowledge of the league’s decision-making said the owners were aware that a player testing positive would prompt an immediate schedule suspension.
Gobert testing positive “woke everybody up,” one executive said. “If there’s any positive to this, it’s that when famous people [are involved], it gets people to pay attention.”
Gobert, the first of two NBA players to test positive for the coronavirus, was caught on video Monday touching the microphones and recording devices during a group interview, apparently to mock the league’s decision to restrict reporters from the locker room in response to the virus.
He apologized Thursday.
“I would like to publicly apologize to the people that I may have endangered,” Gobert wrote on Instagram. “At the time, I had no idea I was even infected. I was careless and make no excuse. I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously. I will do whatever I can to support using my experience as way to educate others and prevent the spread of this virus.”
Yet Gobert wasn’t the only NBA figure struggling to understand the imminent danger of the coronavirus.
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James said last Friday that he wouldn’t play games in empty arenas, while other players continued to high-five and celebrate with each other despite a league memo that suggested they limit physical contact with each other and with fans.
Indeed, the Jazz’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday evening wasn’t canceled until moments before tip-off, even though the Jazz and the NBA league office knew that Gobert was being tested for the coronavirus. Later, Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell tested positive as well. Mitchell went through his typical warmup routine at Chesapeake Energy Arena, according to people in the building, and he interacted with teammates, opponents and ballboys.
“It’s crazy they tried to play that game knowing that [Gobert] was being tested,” a team executive said. “Why did it take a positive test to shut things down? The players never should have been stuck in that locker room all night, and the fans shouldn’t have been in the building.”
Players commonly battle the flu and colds throughout the regular season. Emmanuel Mudiay, another Jazz player, was feeling ill Wednesday, but he did not test positive for coronavirus.
Even so, another executive argued that the Wednesday game between the Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans, which was abruptly postponed because one of the referees had worked a game involving Gobert on Monday, should have been handled differently.
“The ‘abundance of caution’ move would have been to shut down both games as soon as [Gobert] needed to be tested,” the executive said. “The Pelicans shouldn’t have had to push so hard to avoid that game.”
At the same time, another team executive argued that the NBA’s coronavirus protocols prevented a wider spread. If Gobert hadn’t been tested, he could have played Wednesday and in future games, exposing additional players and staffers. And if the NBA hadn’t mandated testing procedures in an earlier communication with teams, the coronavirus tests and medical personnel needed to test 58 people in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night might not have been readily available.
“If that situation had played out [in our arena], we would have been ready,” the executive said. “But only because the league mandated that we have that plan in place a few days earlier.”
NBA teams quickly turned their attention Thursday to the schedule suspension, which the NBA announced would take place “until further notice.”
Owners requested that Silver reassess the suspended schedule in 30 days, with some holding out hope that a delayed schedule could be pushed deeper into the summer, past the season’s typical mid-June conclusion. Silver said Thursday that the postseason could be salvaged even with a six-week suspension of the schedule by playing into late July, conceding that it was “possible” the season and postseason would be canceled entirely.
“What we determined today is that this hiatus will most likely be at least 30 days,” Silver said later in an interview with TNT on Thursday. “We don’t know enough to be more specific than that. We want to give that direction to our teams and fans. Is there a protocol with or without fans that we can resume play? What makes sense here without compromising anyone’s safety? It’s too early to tell.”
But in conversations with team executives on Thursday, there was little hope of an immediate resolution because of the high likelihood that coronavirus cases increase exponentially in the coming weeks.
“I’ve seen models that are super scary,” one executive said. “There could be 70,000 cases in one city alone within six weeks. Our decisions have to be driven by science and the numbers, and our priority has to be safety. I would love for this to slow down and we can play a truncated regular season and playoffs, but it just seems unfeasible.
“I don’t understand how we are back playing in the short term. As a society, we won’t be willing to take the authoritarian steps that China took to slow the transmission rate. This could be a three- to five-month process, and that could mean we are looking at relaunching next season.”
The executive added that there is even a “slim” chance that the start of the 2020-21 season could be impacted.
“If it’s not safe to play games today,” another high-ranking executive added, “why would it be safe in two months when all the charts say [the spread] will be much worse?”
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said he wasn’t ready to give up on the season yet.
“I don’t know, but I hope so,” Cuban said. “[Resuming the season] certainly hasn’t been ruled out, but there’s no certainty to anything right now.”
Multiple team representatives said their players would continue to practice individually in the coming weeks as they await further guidance from the league office. But fears lingered.
“In my opinion, [Gobert and Mitchell] aren’t the only two guys in the NBA with coronavirus,” one agent said. “They’re just the only two who have tested positive so far.”
As NBA teams wait to see how the schedule suspension shakes out, they spent Thursday juggling a variety of tasks. Five teams that recently faced the Jazz were advised to self-quarantine.
“We had a team meeting earlier this week where we essentially tried to scare the players s---less,” one executive said. “It worked. They were pretty scared when they [heard about Gobert], but they understood what it meant and that it could happen to anyone.”
On the business side, executives were bracing for a financial hit to the NBA in excess of $100 million, given that small-market teams clear more than $1 million in revenue for every home game and prestige organizations, such as the Golden State Warriors, can top $3 million. Team executives were going through the process of contacting television and radio partners, as well as other sponsors, to begin conversations about how those relationships would proceed during the unprecedented midseason shutdown.
These, and other issues, will need to be untangled as the NBA copes with its new reality in the coming days.
“We’ve got some time,” an executive said. “I really don’t see this [hiatus] ending any time soon.”
Candace Buckner in Washington contributed to this report.