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How Adam Silver made the NBA’s COVID shutdown decision on a frantic car ride to his apartment

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Adam Silver made the monumental decision to suspend the 2019-20 NBA season from the backseat of a car in Manhattan. Sometime after 8 p.m. on March 11, 2020, he sat outside his New York City apartment building. Urgent discussions with league officials kept him away from dinner with his wife.

Earlier that night, shortly after leaving his office at 645 Fifth Avenue, Silver received a call from NBA general counsel Rick Buchanan. Buchanan informed the NBA commissioner that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. Over the next 90 minutes, Silver guided the league through one of the most frantic nights in its history. When he finally swung open his apartment door, he told his wife: “You're not gonna believe what just happened.”

Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the shutdown, Silver spoke with Yahoo News about that night. He detailed the decision, and everything that led to it, in more depth than ever before. This is the story of March 11, 2020, through the eyes of the NBA commissioner.

A chance meeting

It begins back in January in Brooklyn. At a Nets game, Silver ran into Dr. David Ho, a world-renowned infectious disease expert who’d worked with the league in the early 1990s on HIV and AIDS. Silver chatted with Ho about the emerging coronavirus. The following day, he followed up via phone, and asked Ho to advise the league.

It was Ho who suggested that NBA teams establish relationships with local health authorities to enable access to coronavirus testing. So on Tuesday, March 10, when Gobert exhibited symptoms, one day before a game in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma doctors administered a test. When the Jazz departed for Chesapeake Energy Arena the following day, the test result had not yet been returned. So Gobert stayed back at the team hotel as teammates wondered what the hell was going on.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attends an NBA basketball game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
When NBA commissioner Adam Silver shut down the NBA season on March 11, 2020, he didn't know the pause would last 141 days. (AP)

The day began unremarkably

Throughout the day, Silver had been outlining contingency plans, many of them related to fans.

That morning, at 645 Fifth Avenue, he’d met with Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. They’d discussed the possibility of a brief hiatus, to buy time for COVID protocol implementation. But on a board of governors teleconference that afternoon, discussion had centered around restricting arena capacities.

Earlier that day, Dr. Anthony Fauci had testified in front of Congress, and recommended that the NBA move forward without large crowds. San Francisco authorities had already announced a ban on gatherings of more than 1,000 people. The Warriors were preparing to play without spectators Thursday. Silver and the NBA’s team owners anticipated that other teams would soon have to follow.

“We were drawing up plans for reduced attendance, and even potentially to have no fans,” Silver says, “but not to shut the league down entirely.”

He worked a little past 7:30 that evening, discussing the contingencies and their impact on competitive fairness. When he finally stepped out into a brisk night, and ducked into the car that would take him home, Buchanan’s name showed up on his phone.

Making the decision in the moment

Oklahoma’s commissioner of health was one of the first to know of Gobert’s positive test. He called Governor Kevin Stitt, who happened to be at the Thunder game with his son. Stitt hustled to find Thunder owner Clay Bennett, who convened an emergency meeting.

As Buchanan relayed the news to Silver, Bennett also called Silver. That’s when the urgency of the situation really struck Silver. The teams, Bennett revealed, were on the court. Pregame music blared. Player introductions and tipoff were minutes away.

Silver, Bennett, Thunder general manager Sam Presti and others collectively made the decision to put the game on hold. Presti told Thunder medical director Donnie Strack: Don’t let the game start. Strack sprinted across the court and found referees. Referees informed the two head coaches, and sent players trudging back to their locker rooms. "We are waiting for league confirmation to start the game,” the PA announcer told 19,000 fans. It never came.

Silver asked around in search of guidance from local health authorities. "Within that five-, 10-minute period, we didn't receive any directives,” he says. “So at that point, we, the NBA, I made a decision that we needed to call that game."

Then, as Thunder officials worked on an evacuation plan, Silver made the bigger decision.

“While it was a very difficult decision to shut down the league, it wasn't all that complicated,” Silver says. “We had a positive case. We didn't know how quickly this would spread. We need to stop operating.”

He didn’t quite recognize the broader implications of it. “It seemed like such an immediate, specific decision for me,” Silver says. “I usually find myself in these kinds of situations, I look more narrowly rather than thinking about the larger context. I sort of focus on the immediate information in front of me. At least for the NBA, that seemed like the absolute right decision in that moment. Maybe part of it came because I had so little time to make that decision. I didn't have time to convene a board meeting, or call experts for advice.”

The announcement came at 9:31 p.m. When Silver returned to his apartment, and broke the news to his wife, overpowering emotions surged through him.

"At that point,” Silver says, “I couldn't have imagined that we were about to shut down NBA as we knew it for essentially the next nine months or so. To me, at least in that moment, it seemed like we would be dealing with a relatively short-term issue.”

The hiatus, instead, lasted 141 days. It set off a “ripple effect,” which Silver sensed, that within 24 hours had shut down every major U.S. sport. The ripple also extended beyond sports. Silver’s decision accelerated the country’s broader pandemic response.

“The NBA was really the first to pull the trigger and say, ‘Economic consequences be damned, we have to put public health above this until we can get a sense of what's going on,’ ” says Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. “So I think that was a monumental event for the U.S.”

Silver, though, wasn’t thinking so grand. “I can't say it felt so global to me,” he says. “I wouldn't have predicted then that essentially a year later, someone would be interviewing me, and saying, ‘Describe to me what it was like on March 11.’ It didn't feel it was of that sort of magnitude. I was much more focused, in that moment, on the impact [on] the league that I run. And the tens of thousands of jobs that are dependent on this league. And what was going to happen next.”

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