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The NBA wasn't going to be immune to COVID-19 after making a deal with the devil

Vincent Goodwill
·5 min read
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The expected spike in COVID-19 diagnoses is eye-popping even with the acceptance of a deadly pandemic ripping through the states, and any thought of the NBA being immune was nonsense.

You can’t make a deal with the devil and be surprised when the kitchen is burning.

Two weeks after the most family-oriented holiday, a new round of infected citizens was inevitable — to which NBA players were just as susceptible to as everyday folk. The league wanted the gobs of money its broadcast partners put in front of them by starting Christmas week, even knowing the inherent risk starting at that time carried.

Pandemic fatigue had long set in, with so many daring fate and airborne illnesses to do what they wanted to in some cases — or being innocent bystanders in others.

Whether it’s positive tests, contact tracing or even inconclusive results, it’s a never-ending game of Plinko, just a matter of which player it lands on today and whether it’s severe or precautionary.

The most notable players this weekend to hit the NBA health and safety protocols list are St. Louis born and bred Jayson Tatum, who ended up on the Celtics injury report Saturday after playing the Wizards on Friday night — not in enough time before landing fellow native Bradley Beal on the shelf due to their postgame meeting of proximity.

The league can perform to show it’s against age-old discrimination in attacking social ills, but this virus doesn’t discriminate. Not against good intentions, heavy protocols or even the calendar changing from 2020 to 2021.

COVID is here until it isn’t, a harsh truth not many are willing to embrace. A vaccine isn’t coming quick enough for first responders or vulnerable people, so it can’t depend on the needle coming in on the white horse to save the enterprise.

The success of the summer bubble has produced calls for many to return to that setup, but it feels so unrealistic given the once-in-a-lifetime circumstances surrounding it. The restrictive rules resulted in no positive tests but the mental strain it seemed to create means the players aren’t likely to embrace that again — not when they’re collecting checks on the regular right now.

It’s easy to call for a bubble when you don’t have to live by its rules, especially when the lightweight freedom the players have currently doesn’t feel like enough.

It isn’t totally hopeless, as the contact tracing and multiple tests give off erring on caution to prevent superspreader situations, but flying blind with a seat belt doesn’t take away from the danger.

Head coach Doc Rivers of the Philadelphia 76ers high fives players during the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets
The Philadelphia 76ers only had seven healthy players available on Saturday against the Denver Nuggets. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

It just cushions the conscience.

Getting through this period means the turbulence will be easier the rest of the way, but considering NBA commissioner Adam Silver is pragmatic and quick-twitched with his assessments, perhaps taking a longer-than-expected All-Star break following the first half of the season is the prudent exercise, along with expanding the rosters permanently for these extraordinary circumstances.

It doesn’t help in the moment, but you get the feeling it would take a lot to come to a full stop barely three weeks into the season.

There’s too much money already lost to go back, too much to recoup to do anything but move forward, carefully and as flexibly as possible.

The league tried its best but it can’t control all of life’s variables, nor could it follow other professional sports as guides. Major League Baseball nearly turned disastrous at the end of the World Series, a scenario the NBA can’t afford. The NFL is as soulless as it is single-minded on collecting every last dollar it is owed, and its games being once a week makes it easier to contain the virus while insisting the show must go on.

The travel is limited, especially compared to the up-down, in-out nature the NBA’s schedule naturally provides. And because the NBA isn’t as outwardly ruthless, toeing the line as part-corporate entity, part-civic asset, it’s harder to come to grips with its players coming down with the virus and there being no swift reaction from Silver and the league office.

When deciding on Dec. 22 for opening night, initiated by the league and signed off by the players, this was a likely scenario — even down to the possibility of results that can affect a team mid-stream, like the second-quarter departure of injured Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry from the bench a couple of nights ago due to health and safety protocols. Tests done the day before a game are more accurate, but take longer to get results. These are the results Curry and the 76ers were waiting for, even though a less accurate rapid test was done on gameday.

The 76ers decided to stay in New York extra nights before being cleared to play Saturday afternoon, albeit with nine healthy players before Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ruled out with injuries nobody knew they had beforehand.

Postpone or cancel? Please.

The Denver Broncos were missing their entire quarterback room, throwing rookie wide receiver Kendall Hinton in the uncomfortable position of signal-caller.

And people watched, even if for the spectacle. The show went on and even though the fairness to the Broncos could be debated, it became a footnote for this NFL season.

Now, of course, the NBA is different. Its faces aren’t faceless; They’re known, bankable commodities fans pack arenas to see — under normal circumstances that won’t return any time soon, much less during the first half of this truncated season.

But in its wildest dreams, it strives for the NFL’s appeal. And such circumstances that produce Tyrese Maxey being the epitome of a “stay ready” rookie seems NFL-ish. It takes some of the sting out of missing the matchup between Nikola Jokic and the NBA’s greatest troll in Embiid, a palatable Plan B instead of an irresistible Plan A.

Staying pliable has been the NBA’s best strength over the last year and it’ll need that moving forward since the devil they danced with really doesn’t have an advocate.

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