ESPN, one of the NBA’s top partners, tweeted a 28-second video on June 4 to the 36.5 million followers of its “SportsCenter” account — “When You Wish Upon a Star” playing with fireworks popping around Disney’s iconic castle. The reason for the celebration? “The NBA is Back,” the ad ends.
The video was the network’s response to a 29-1 vote of teams in favor of restarting the NBA season with 22 teams on the Disney World campus, reason for basketball fans and the network that airs a sizable chunk of the league’s games to celebrate.
Privately, though, some NBA executives and team officials scoffed. The road to the NBA season was far from complete and bringing the NBA “back” was no guarantee.
The NBA keeps inching toward that return but the league and medical experts know that obstacles continue to exist.
As the Toronto Raptors became the first team to head to Florida on Monday for the season’s restart with coronavirus cases in the state on a steady climb, there are still few guarantees to offer other than the NBA’s commitment to try to finish its season.
In the time between ESPN’s declaration and now, players have lent their voice to a massive movement to fight social injustice and racial inequality. They’ve seen states reopen their economies while coronavirus infections have increased. They’ve been given a clear picture of what life inside the Disney campus will look like, complete with wearable technology and guards monitoring who comes and goes from the league’s hotels.
The NBA has entered a critical week in its return, with players being mandated to return to their teams’ markets Monday. Traveling staff and players will begin undergoing coronavirus testing Tuesday, with tests administered every other day. Everyone will also undergo an antibody blood test on Tuesday. The households of players, coaches and staff will also be eligible for testing beginning Tuesday.
Players must inform teams Wednesday whether they plan on participating in the season’s restart. Already, three players reportedly have opted out. Phoenix’s Kelly Oubre Jr. will focus on rehabbing his injured knee instead of playing in Orlando, according to The Athletic. ESPN reported Washington’s Davis Bertans, in line for a big free agency contract this summer, will sit out to limit the chances he suffers a serious injury between now and his new deal. Portland’s Trevor Ariza will not go to Orlando, instead spending a previously scheduled month-long visitation period with his son.
The most alarming information continues to come from Orange County in Florida, where Disney World is located. Nearly half of the county’s confirmed COVID-19 cases have come in the last two weeks. On Saturday, the county logged 437 cases — the most in the county since the start of the pandemic.
The positivity rate for tests on Saturday was 16.7%. The rate has been more than 10% for each of the last six days, according to county data.
The Raptors arrived in Florida with all of their players Monday. The team will begin testing and increased individual workouts at Florida Gulf Coast University. They’ll be the first of the 22 teams to put the NBA’s health and safety plans into practice.
Once teams arrive in Orlando for the “bubble” in early July, they’ll be staying on a campus with workers who will be traveling to and from home, many in Orange County.
Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said that should be a little troubling to the NBA and its players.
“I think the community risk is going to be important. The community transmission rate certainly impacts the risk of getting infected within these bubbles,” Rimoin said.
Rimoin said the greatest risks for transmission will come from person-to-person contact, and the NBA health and safety protocols have gone to great lengths to limit players from sharing spaces with workers who are living outside quarantine.
Following the protocols, Rimoin said, will be crucial, with people in and out of the NBA’s bubble subjected to more than just regular testing. They must follow protocols on when to enter rooms and how to social distance from NBA players and personnel.
“It’s like anywhere,” she said. “The best thing we can all do is wear masks, social distance, use hand hygiene, avoid crowds and all do our best.”