Inside look at the night the NBA postponed its season

Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert Just waking up with a little cold, light fever, just like I had 1,000 times before in my life. Rudy Gobe...

Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert
Just waking up with a little cold, light fever, just like I had 1,000 times before in my life.

Rudy Gobert didn’t feel well on March 10, a day after touching reporters’ recording devices in an attempt at a COVID-19 joke.

“Just waking up with a little cold, light fever, just like I had 1,000 times before in my life,” Gobert told ESPN’s Lisa Salters. “And I’m a guy that when that happens, you just work through it. You work it out and then a few hours later, you’re feeling fine and you’re able to play the game.”

***

In California, San Francisco mayor London Breed banned all gatherings of 1,000 or more people, including Golden State Warriors games.

The Warriors planned to play their March 12 home game against Brooklyn without fans.

“We implemented CDC guidelines two weeks before their declaration by the city. This was the cleanest arena in the world. Based on the advice that we got, we didn’t think we were putting people at risk. But the circumstances changed every day. So what I had expressed to the mayor that day was we were in this together,” Warriors president and COO Rick Welts said.

***

Then-Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan meets with officials before the Thunder-Jazz game was postponed.

Then-Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan meets with officials before the Thunder-Jazz game was postponed.
AP

Even though players warmed up for the game, the Jazz were awaiting results of Gobert’s COVID test.

Then-Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari knew the impact the virus was having had on his native Italy.

“I’m always the first player from either team to take the court for the opening tip, and usually when I get out there the three refs are standing in the same spots every time — one at half court, and then one near each free throw line,” Gallinari wrote for “The Players’ Tribune.” “But on this night I get out there, and the refs … they’re not around. So I know something’s up.”

***

Minutes before tip-off, Thunder vice president of human and player performance Donnie Strack ran onto the court and informed the officials a player had tested positive.

“It was a surreal moment when team doctor sprinted onto the floor letting us know we had to wait,” Lindsay said. “That was the moment when everything became real. I’ll never forget the eyes of 20,000 people staring at you. We were moments from throwing the ball up and here we are with the team doctor saying, ‘We need to buy time here. We’ve reached out to New York.’ That was the defining moment where I knew this was so much bigger than basketball.”

***

The NBA referees, including Mark Lindsay, stand at the scorer's table while awaiting instructions from the league after sending both the Jazz and Thunder to their locker rooms before tip off.

The NBA referees, including Mark Lindsay, stand at the scorer’s table while awaiting instructions from the league after sending both the Jazz and Thunder to their locker rooms before tip off.
Alonzo Adams, USA TODAY Sports

Then-Thunder coach Billy Donovan saw Strack talking with the refs.

“A lot of it I thought was just him helping the officials,” Donovan said at a coaches clinic in the summer. “‘Hey, if you need to keep the ball wiped down, if you need to wash your hands during a timeout, things are available on the sidelines for you guys.’ I just thought he was talking to them because we had had some education on how to do handwashing, sanitizing, that kind of stuff. Social distancing wasn’t in at that point in time.

“And then, right after that, while he was talking to the officials, one of our assistant general managers ran out there, and they were huddled up, and then I knew something was going on.”

***

In New York, Silver left NBA headquarters for his home around 7:45 p.m. ET, shortly before tipoff of the Jazz-Thunder game.

“On my way home, I received a call from Rick Buchanan our general counsel,” Silver said. “He said, ‘We just learned Rudy Gobert tested positive.’ I don’t think it was an accident the test result came right before the game. It had to be a government-approved lab test. I’m sure the team made clear to the health authorities that we have a game at 7 o’clock local time. We have to know before the game.”

Thunder owner Clay Bennett called Silver.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Bennett asked, according to Silver.

“Yes,” Silver answered.

“What are you going to do?” 

“Give me a couple of minutes.”

***

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver
There wasn’t time to have a board meeting so I made a decision that we had to call that game.

Silver was in a car in front of his Manhattan apartment.

“It wasn’t absolutely clear to me that because a player who tested positive and was no longer with the team, therefore call the game,” Silver said. “We were trying to locate the Oklahoma City health commissioner to see if that person was going to mandate we shut down the game. In a matter of minutes not having heard from that person, I realized we had to err on the side of caution. There wasn’t time to have a board meeting so I made a decision that we had to call that game.”

***

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell
You’re going to look back on it and this is one of the craziest things that’s happened in sports. Not just in sports. This is one of the craziest things that’s happened in the world in our time.

Donovan Mitchell had been on the court warming up.

“We’re in the middle of a ’30 for 30’ to this day,” Mitchell said when the NBA season resumed in the Orlando bubble. “You’re going to look back on it and this is one of the craziest things that’s happened in sports. Not just in sports. This is one of the craziest things that’s happened in the world in our time.”

***

Oklahoma City health authorities mobilized and began testing Jazz players, coaches, staffers and media at the arena.

“The uncertainty surrounding all those things and first and foremost when we got tested, at that point, I don’t think anybody knew what that was going to be like,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “My guess is that the people who were doing the testing, it wasn’t something they were that familiar with doing. We just take it for granted now. I can tell you the test was a little different then. It felt like it went up into your brain. It was hard to keep from having a physical reaction. I’ve still got a few photographs of different guys being tested.”

***

At 8:37 p.m. ET, Thunder public address announcer Mario Nanni addresses the crowd: “Fans, due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed. You are all safe. And take your time in leaving the arena tonight and do so in an orderly fashion. Thank you for coming out tonight. We are all safe.” 

***

ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco
It was surreal. When I think back to that day, I can still feel the unease and curiosity that we all felt as a crew when we were having that lunch that day … Even though it felt like the pandemic was closing in on us, I don’t think we thought there was any chance that was the last night there’d be any basketball as long as there was.

Six games were scheduled for March 11. Three were in progress, a fourth – Denver at Dallas on ESPN – was just tipping off as Utah-Oklahoma City was postponed and New Orleans at Sacramento was scheduled for a 10 p.m. ET start.

Ruocco and Burke had the call for ESPN with Rinaldi the sideline reporter for that game.

“It was surreal. When I think back to that day, I can still feel the unease and curiosity that we all felt as a crew when we were having that lunch that day,” Ruocco said. “The entire lunch ended up being ‘How do we think this is going end up affecting the NBA season?’ Doris and I both said, ‘Let’s enjoy tonight because this might be the last game we do in front of fans for some time.’ We thought that was even drastic, but we could sense that was coming. Even though it felt like the pandemic was closing in on us, I don’t think we thought there was any chance that was the last night there’d be any basketball as long as there was.”

***

The last game of the night, New Orleans at Sacramento, was also postponed. Players from both teams were hesitant to play once they learned a referee had worked a Jazz game earlier in the week.

“We were doing contact tracing and we learned one of the referees who was working the Kings game that night had refereed a Jazz game earlier in the week where Rudy Gobert had played. We then decided we had to call that game as well,” Silver said.

***

About 90 minutes after the NBA postponed the Jazz game, the league released a statement. “The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of tonight’s schedule of games until further notice. The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.”

***

“When I made that decision, I was not thinking that the season would not resume in any sense of normalcy,” Silver said. “I had never heard of playing the season in a so-called bubble. This seemed like a short-term decision I was making. I don’t think I understood the import of my decision when I made it that night. I certainly understood for the thousands of people who work in the NBA and hundreds of millions of people on a global basis who follow the NBA, I was making a big decision. I wasn’t thinking of the larger implications of the NBA shutting down and what effect that might potentially have on other businesses’ decisions or other leagues’ decision to do something similar.”

***

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban sat courtside watching the Dallas-Denver game. A team staffer showed him the news on a cell phone.

The image of Cuban reacting is memorable: mouth agape, then recoiling into the back of his chair.

“It feels like it was 10 years ago. It’s been a long year,” Cuban said via email.

“I was stunned. I was not sure of the severity of the virus. This brought it all home. As I said that night, it immediately clarified that this was no longer about basketball, it was about the health and safety of our families and I had a lot to learn and think about in order to be able to take care of my family’s health and to protect and help our friends and employees.” 

***

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban had a courtside seat when the Mavericks played the Denver Nuggets in what would be the final NBA game for four months. Cuban said,

The Nuggets-Mavericks was the last game of the NBA season for the next four months.

“We were all stunned,” Burke said. “We knew it was a tipping point. It was a moment that was going to change things. For how long? We were totally oblivious. There was no way for us to understand the implications of this. Those feelings of anxiety and uncertainty became amplified. We went back to the hotel and decided to sit and share a glass of wine and try to come to grips with what had just happened – that we did call the last NBA game. And how long would that be the case?” 

***

Burke’s question was answered when the NBA decided to finish the season in the Orlando bubble, beginning on July 30.

“The subsequent three or four months, it gives you an appreciation for how unimportant that game was, relative to all the people that have been fighting this virus,” Snyder said. “The health care workers who are on the front lines, people that have given their lives to protect other people, the many people that have gotten sick, the people that have tragically passed away. So that game starts to fade away as far as its importance on a larger scale.” 

***

Adam Silver was on hand for the Lakers-Clippers' game when the season restarted in July. Silver's decision to suspend the NBA season last year set off a chain of events that led to the postponement of several high-profile sporting events.

Silver was praised for his leadership in the moments, days, weeks and months after Gobert’s positive test. A year later, he is forthright about the magnitude of COVID-19.

“Looking back a year ago and thinking about what I was saying privately and publicly in the few interviews I did then, I was a bit naive about what I was facing,” Silver said. “I didn’t understand how little we knew at that point about the virus. I was using the term hiatus for our stoppage, and not an original line, but I didn’t understand how much the virus was thoroughly in control and not any public or private decision-makers.

“I certainly had no sense about how truly unpredictable the behavior of a virus could be in terms of spread, potential variants and also now in what is a very positive way, the timeline for effective vaccines. No one was predicting vaccines that were highly efficacious by the end of the calendar year. Some were saying we’re looking at years out. It has been unpredictable both in miraculous things that can happen and dreadful things that can happen.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Inside look at the night the NBA postponed its season
Inside look at the night the NBA postponed its season
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