“You try to go out shopping and then you get the team text: ‘Hey, test is at 5,’ ” Bazemore said of the team’s twice-a-day coronavirus tests. “It kind of pulls you back into that little vortex.”
Over the final days of a chaotic and taxing NBA regular season — a season of often bad, blowout basketball squeezed into five months — players described to The Washington Post an experience packed with a lot of games but little joy. Coronavirus restrictions wiped out most opportunities for players to bond. The crammed schedule after a short offseason — the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs played 11 back-to-backs over the final 10 weeks of the season, according to NBA.com — appeared to lead to usage injuries across the league. And as the season wore on, players spoke openly about mental health concerns, all with the jaded knowledge that the season was designed to maximize revenue amid a stubborn pandemic.
“This season is straight about quantity. It’s not about the quality of play,” said eighth-year veteran Solomon Hill, who plays for the Atlanta Hawks. “It’s kind of like: ‘What are we trying to accomplish here? Are we just trying to finish the season? Are or we really trying to put our best foot forward, our best athletes on the court, and give a quality service to the game?’ And it’s definitely been a lack of that.”
‘It’s so forced’
Last fall, as the NBA and the players’ union negotiated terms for a closer-to-normal return to play this season, the virus was raging, and Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, offered a grim outlook: Sports arenas probably would not return to full capacity by the end of the season.
Playing in empty or near-empty arenas would hurt the league’s bottom line, but not playing until January might have cost the NBA between $500 million and $1 billion. Aligned in protecting their pocketbooks, the union and the league agreed to rush back basketball only 73 days from the final game of the 2019-20 postseason.
Unlike his new Hawks teammates, Hill had spent three months in the NBA’s Florida bubble as his former team, the Miami Heat, advanced to the Finals. He called that experience “the most intimate” season of his career. This season, he said, was the complete opposite.
“It’s a constant need to fill the TV with entertainment,” Hill said. “It’s so forced.”
Though limits have eased since the league drafted a 158-page health and safety memo for teams and players, the early stretch of the season was defined by what was missing. No fans in most arenas. No eating out except for the three restaurants in each city approved by the league.
“No comment,” Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant scoffed on the NBA’s dining picks. “Not being able to go to dinner was the toughest thing this year.” It’s those dinners and similar outings, Grant said, that “bring everybody closer.”
Especially on the road. Those trips are a team’s chance to jell — when a teammate becomes a brother. This year, though, there was no space for guys to play cards on the plane, laugh over dinner in New York (the city was closed down) or go bowling just to break away from the monotony of a five-game road trip. Instead, the Hawks wore masks on charter bus rides while sitting next to roped-off seats. The Dallas Mavericks forfeited team dinners for Call of Duty games.
“Some of the best bonding opportunities for teams is when you’re on the road,” said Dwight Powell, the union representative for the Mavericks. “Those are great opportunities to speak off the record with one another, air things out, figure out strategy and also just stay closer friendship-wise, which helps on the court. So our inability to do that definitely made things more difficult, and it definitely stunted our growth in developing those bonds.”
Hill said he had a curfew for the first time since college. Though Atlanta was largely open for business — making his Whole Foods runs a little precarious — Hill said he adhered to the league’s rules. Sometimes he worried so much about being the guy who might bring the coronavirus into the ranks that he would text General Manager Travis Schlenk for reminders of what he could and could not do on the road.
“You talk about playing a team sport, [but] at the beginning of the season, you’re telling teammates that they can’t be around each other,” Hill said. “You have to limit contact. You have to limit off-the-court situations. You have to be socially distanced from each other. You can’t do anything outside of the basketball court. You can’t do anything in anybody’s room. You couldn’t go down and sit at the same tables until you pass a test. Very frustrating.”
Sick and tired
Just getting through the season healthy was challenging. While injuries piled up for stars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, John Wall, Jamal Murray and James Harden, the Orlando Magic limped to the finish line with six players who suffered season-ending injuries.
“Having to come back and play so many games in such a short time — it doesn’t give your body the proper healing time,” said Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams, who dealt with ankle pain throughout the season and played his final game April 14. “You really don’t understand everything that we have to do, and it’s straining. If you talk about it, you almost sound like you’re whining or being a baby. But to do it, every single day, day in and day out …”
Carter-Williams said the virus testing wore his patience thin. He lives a half-hour drive from the team’s facility, where the daily testing took place, so he would arrive an hour before normal for practice. After getting swabbed, he would then wait 45 minutes in his car for the test results. It was the only way he could get in the gym — which, across the league, felt as if it was tucked away on the other side of a velvet rope.
The compact game schedule disrupted practice time. To limit exposure, some teams, such as the Washington Wizards, canceled traditional morning shootarounds on the road.
Yet caution did not stop the virus from sweeping through locker rooms. By the second week of January, the league had announced a total of 27 players with confirmed positive tests. Over the past 20 years, the most games postponed in an entire season had been four (in 2016-17). By January, the NBA had postponed 21 games in accordance with the league’s health protocols. Some teams shut down operations for weeks. In a four-day stretch, six Wizards players tested positive — and the team ended up not playing for 13 days.
“The thing that concerned me was that people were dying,” Wizards Coach Scott Brooks told The Post in February. “This is serious. We have seven players that have the virus. I hope and pray that nothing happens to them or their family. So I never thought about basketball.”
What was lost
This season, NBA locker rooms were closed to media, most team personnel and even family members. Langston Galloway’s 3-year-old son, Deuce, is still confused why he couldn’t visit inside the Phoenix Suns’ space.
“It’s always great when he comes around because everybody loves my lil’ man being in the locker room, coming up and shaking everybody’s hand, dapping everybody up,” Galloway said. “He literally is like: ‘Dad, can we go to the gym?’ Or . . . ‘When can we come to the gym? I want to go to the gym.’ ‘I’m sorry, man. Soon, soon, soon.’ ”
Players say they also lost the ability to decompress. In the Before Times, Bazemore golfed to take a break from being a professional basketball player. This season, he tried journaling, learning guitar and playing Xbox with buddies. Still, nothing quite compared with being on the links.
“I was like a kid getting his binky taken away from him,” Bazemore said. “Guys are still grateful to be playing, but it’s just the quick turnaround, the healing of the body, the mind. You’re so consumed with it. This is a game that can take your life over, and I’m sure … there was a point where you didn’t know left from right. You didn’t know what day it was. You’re probably out of sorts with any significant relationships.”
There were concerns about the mental health of players from the start. In January, Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said he worried about his teammates going through the season while living in Tampa, where the Raptors played because of coronavirus restrictions in Canada. Teammate Chris Boucher’s family lives in Montreal; he hasn’t seen them in a year.
“Not having my mom, my sister, my brother around,” Boucher told reporters Sunday, “it definitely takes a toll long-term.”
In March, Los Angeles Lakers center Montrezl Harrell tweeted an ominous message — “Think it’s time I call it quits to everything and everyone!” — prompting fans to flood his timeline with encouraging words, and sending the team’s controlling owner, Jeanie Buss, to her first home game of the season, just to give Harrell a hug.
“Nobody is obviously sharing the full breadth of things they’re having to deal with outside of the gym,” said Powell, who did not get to see his family this season because they live outside of the United States.
During his season in Atlanta, Hill also lived alone, and though his family is stateside, he only had a few opportunities to visit with his young daughter and newborn son. Even after leaving the bubble, in anticipation of his son’s birth, Hill said he couldn’t visit close family members such as his father because of covid-19 restrictions. Echoing other players across the league, Hill expressed gratitude for all of the behind-the-scenes work to make the season happen. Still, he said, this season came with a heavy price.
“The restaurants, the clubs, the clothes, shoes, all that stuff that comes with it, it’s going to be there. It’s going to come back,” Hill said of the perks of being an NBA player, “but that family time was something that was very different for me.
“The only thing I wish I could get is time with my family — because you can’t get any more time.”