With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic set to be part of American life indefinitely, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the league’s plan to return to play next month in a closed campus environment in Florida was the best option available to the league.
“We know that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Silver said on a conference call Friday afternoon with several league officials. “And we are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus.
“No options are risk-free right now.”
National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, NBPA president Chris Paul of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat forward Andre Iguodala also were on the conference call.
Silver was asked about two significant obstacles that the league must overcome — the rapid rise of coronavirus cases in Florida and the possibility of an infection getting into the bubble environment itself — in its attempt to pull off its 22-team restart at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
“My ultimate conclusion is that we can’t outrun the virus, and that this is what we’re gonna be living with for the foreseeable future — which is why we designed the campus the way we did,” Silver said. “And so it’s a closed network; and while it’s not impermeable, we are in essence protected from cases around us. At least, that’s the model.
“So for those reasons, we’re still very comfortable being in Orlando.”
The league and the union officially agreed to proceed with the restart plan earlier Friday.
Silver, who confirmed there would at least initially be daily testing inside the bubble, admitted the daily case count in Florida — which neared 9,000 in the totals announced Friday — was something he is worried about. But, he added, the precautions the league is putting into place are meant to prevent that from impacting what the league is trying to do.
“The answer is yes, the level of concern has increased — not just because of the increased levels in Florida, but throughout the country,” Silver said. “At least today, I believe, 29 of the 50 states have an increased number of cases. Of course, we designed our campus, in essence, to isolate ourselves from whatever the level of cases was in the surrounding community.
“But since we designed our initial protocol, we are continuing to work with Disney on the testing of at least a subset of their employees that could potentially be in the same room as our players, and anyone else who’s tested daily on our campus.”
Despite the spike in cases in Florida, Silver said he ultimately would have made the same decision if pressed with making the same decision now, as opposed to a month ago.
“In terms of choosing this location, it’s a fair question — whether if we were making this decision at this moment, we would still choose Orlando, Florida?” Silver said. “… We’re still very comfortable being in Orlando.”
With 16 players testing positive out of a pool of 302 in the league’s first wave of mandatory testing, Silver was asked specifically what the NBA would do if a superstar tests positive — which would, at a minimum, require them to refrain from exercising for two weeks, automatically ruling them out for at least an entire round of the playoffs.
“We haven’t worked through every scenario,” Silver said. “But the notion would be that if we had a single player test positive, frankly, whether that player was an All-Star or a journeyman, that player would then go into quarantine. We would then be tracking any players or other personnel that that player had been in contact with, and even potentially supplement the daily testing just to ensure that others have not been contaminated.
“But then we would continue. That team would be down a man, and we would treat that positive test as we would an injury during the season. And so we would not delay the continuation of the playoffs.”
Silver went on to say, however, that the larger question left unasked — what will the league do if there is a larger spread of the virus within the campus beyond a single player, or even a couple of them — is one he still doesn’t have a firm answer to.
“If we were to have significant spread of coronavirus through our community, that ultimately might lead us to stopping,” Silver said. “But we’re working closely with the players’ association, with Disney, and with public health officials in Florida as to what that line should be. And it hasn’t been precisely designed. I think we want to get down on the ground and start to see how our testing’s working and how the protocols are working and then we’ll make decisions as we go.”
The two players on the call, Paul and Iguodala, both discussed what is going through players’ minds as they prepare to enter the bubble in Orlando.
“I think it’s sort of like what Adam said, in that we don’t really know,” Paul said. “Like everything that’s happening right now is — it takes time, right. We never pictured ourselves playing in a situation like this. And I almost think from the day after the league kind of shut down and stopped, we didn’t know.
“… We’re so lucky to have so many players who are aware and conscious and know what’s going on and aware of everything that’s going on. So I think, given any scenario, we would do as we do in any situation: We would talk about it and see what it looks like.”
Many NBA players across the country have participated in ongoing protests over social justice and racial inequality, and Roberts said players will continue to fight to improve awareness.
“The African-American community in this country has been engaged in a conversation internally about what to do, with all of us – not simply the National Basketball Association players, but all of us,” Roberts said. “And the conversation … that has happened between our players is exactly that: What do we do? How do we do it? How should we do it?
“I can’t imagine anything healthier than that. I would’ve been ashamed had there not been a conversation. If the players had been talking about getting back to play and nothing else, frankly, as an African-American woman, I would’ve been disappointed.”
Paul made it clear that whatever the players wind up doing, they won’t stop talking about the issues that matter to them.
“We also understand how powerful our voice is, and so even if we’re back to playing, we understand that our voice can still be heard, our message can still be screamed loud and clear on an unbelievable platform,” Paul said. “So just know that you’re going to continue to hear us. Just know that. It’s never a ‘shut-up-and-dribble’ situation. You’re going to continue to hear us and see us.”
Silver said that the NBA has made progress as far as team hiring practices go — the last three general manager hires in the league have all been Black — the league has more work to do.
“The [NBA] needs to do a better job in particular when it comes to hiring African-Americans at every level in the league,” Silver said. “It’s something that we have been focused on with our teams.”
Silver said the topic has already been discussed at a recent board of governors meeting and that one area where the NBA might try to make a focus on diversity is through the G League.
As for the teams who aren’t part of the league’s return to play plan in Orlando, Roberts was asked about the idea of them getting a chance to get on the court together — either in some kind of tournament amongst themselves, or at least having the chance to practice individually.
“I know that there’s some players, particularly young players, that seem to be concerned that they’re not getting enough run and they don’t want the rust of nine months,” Roberts said. “I think our teams are incredibly smart and creative, and can come up with ways to get those guys engaged — if not now, before the season starts.”
While Roberts said her preference had been for all 30 teams to go to Orlando, she made it clear that any such situation would have to meet the same health standards that will take place in Orlando — and, if they can’t, it won’t be happening.
“Candidly, while I appreciate that there will be a bit of a layoff [for those teams], I think there are some things these teams can do too [for] the guys that are not playing. But nothing could replicate, in every way, the protocol that’s been established for Orlando.
“… So never say never, but there’s a standard. There’s a standard that’s gotta be met. And if it’s not met? Next question, as far as I’m concerned.”