Reality of coronavirus sets in for NBA as Rudy Gobert tests positive for COVID-19

Seerat Sohi
·5 min read

On Monday, as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, a media availability that would have been a scrum was morphed into a news conference at Zions Bank Basketball Center, the Utah Jazz practice facility. After speaking to reporters, center Rudy Gobert jokingly touched every recorder on the table, before prancing out.

It was a joke, and at the time, people laughed. The time between comedy converting to tragedy has never been shorter. The second the coronavirus became a trend, it became a meme.

None of it feels funny in the wake of Gobert testing positive for COVID-19, minutes before the Jazz were supposed to tip off against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The NBA season was subsequently suspended. Thunder players were sent home while the Jazz remained inside the Chesapeake Arena’s visitors locker room to be tested, while employees wearing gloves disinfected chairs and the court was impeded by yellow tape.

Gobert’s blasé reaction to the restrictions put in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus was, in hindsight, irresponsible, unsafe, even foolish. It was also emblematic of why the NBA has been slow to react to the spread of the virus. People who work in sports have an irrational sense of the scope of things in their control. Circumstances are not impediments, merely hurdles to be cleared. Last Friday, LeBron James was asked about the prospect of playing without fans and essentially laughed in its face. In the coming days, he backtracked.

On Monday, the media was barred from entering the locker room pregame, a prudent move that showed exactly where the lines were drawn: It was the only decision that teetered in favor of public safety without costing the NBA any money. Every other decision had to be calculated, the risk of reward of safety versus revenue, in a season where revenue has already been cut by the China scandal.

As early as two hours before Gobert’s diagnosis broke, the NBA was ready to proceed with games — some without fans. As league officials discussed and decided against the possibility of postponing the season, NBA commissioner Adam Silver reportedly knew Gobert was being tested. Yesterday, the Golden State Warriors were in a standoff against medical experts and the city of San Francisco over the issue of fan attendance.

On Wednesday, the sobering seriousness of the coronavirus finally stopped the sports world in its tracks.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 24: Rudy Gobert #27 of the Utah Jazz looks on before a game against the Phoenix Suns at Vivint Smart Home Arena on February 24, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)

Money complicates matters that should otherwise be simple. But so does inertia. So does habit. I was in a coffee shop when the news broke that the season would be suspended. I nervously watched multiple people touch the same five keys on the same keypad to open the door handle to use the same public restroom. I had just touched a doorknob myself, and a plug outlet. I ate in a public space earlier that day. My phone has gone from a bathroom counter to my purse to my hands and face countless times. It never occurred to me before this week to disinfect it. The risk of cramming 20,000 people in closed corridors is unconscionable, knowing what we know now. That’s the rub: acute paranoia has only recently become the only reasonable modus operandi.

As early as a few hours ago, games were being played, basketballs being passed from hand to hand, sweat droplets dripping from body to body. Where does the NBA go from here? Players on the Raptors, who the Jazz played on Monday, will self-quarantine. They were also given a precautionary test. Will every player get tested? Is that even conscionable, considering the low fatality risk of professional athletes compared to the very young and very old? What about their families, with young children? What about older coaches and arena staff? The rebounders who catch balls pregame, the ball-boys who clean up sweat mid-game? Moreover, will they be compensated while games are suspended? Did washing basketballs become part of protocol? Has a question like that ever been posed before?

As the virus spreads, the world is asking questions it never considered before, seeing danger in spaces and actions that were once innocuous. The questions pour in too fast for anyone, including the NBA, to answer. The coronavirus has spread like wildfire in any ecosystem it enters. The NBA officially became one of those ecosystems on Wednesday night.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ game against the Sacramento Kings — the last game of the season until who-knows-when — was canceled prior to tipoff. One of the referees, Courtney Kirkland, was on the crew for the game Utah played on Monday. Gobert wasn’t in the arena on Wednesday, but he was near his teammates earlier, who were near Thunder players. In the last two weeks, the Jazz traversed four cities and played six teams, who played other teams. According to StatMuse, all 30 NBA teams have had some degree of connection over the last five days.

Such is the nature of the NBA. It’s exactly why people within the league constantly refer to it as a “family.” Everyone knows everyone. Everyone goes everywhere. Connectedness is in the NBA’s DNA. It’s a job requirement and one of its greatest perks. It’s also what makes the risk of the coronavirus spreading so scary. The fact that the same infrastructure that brings people together can also put them at danger is one of the truly insidious tragedies of the coronavirus. The NBA is just one microcosm for a phenomenon occurring around the world: the fact that we are all so connected, that we all rely on each other, whether it be for commerce, communion or in the case of sports, both, is exactly what threatens us at this very moment.

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