'Exit the arena': NBA commissioner Adam Silver recalls stunning night the league shut down

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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization formally declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Then-President Donald Trump announced a ban on people traveling to the United States from Europe. Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, revealed they had tested positive for the coronavirus on set in Australia. And the NBA, upon learning one of its all-star players had contracted the virus, became the first professional sports league in America to suspend its season.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver recently sat down with Yahoo News for a wide-ranging interview about the events that transpired that day, what went into his decision to halt play and what he’s learned since.

The interview was part of an oral history of March 11, 2020, which you can read here.

Below is Silver’s account, which has been slightly condensed for clarity.

Adam Silver
NBA commissioner Adam Silver. (Quinn Harris/USA Today Sports)

In early March, we weren’t anticipating that the league would be entirely shut down. We were drawing up plans for reduced attendance, and even potentially to have no fans. But not to shut the league down entirely.

We had been doing some COVID-19 testing beginning in early March, based on the advice we were receiving from David Ho, a world renowned virus expert who we'd been working with since the early ’90s. And he was brought by [former NBA commissioner] David Stern to be an adviser to the NBA.

And completely coincidentally, I ran into Dr. Ho in late January at a Brooklyn Nets game. We were just chitchatting and I was asking him at that point, not thinking necessarily that this coronavirus would have a huge impact on our business, but what he was hearing coming out of China. He said that his lab was beginning to focus almost entirely on this coronavirus. And I remember we had more of what seemed like a social conversation. And I called him the next day and said, “Doctor, I’ve been thinking about it. Would you mind advising the league in the same way you did back in the early ’90s? Around HIV and AIDS?” He said, “Absolutely.”

On March 10, Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz had some symptoms that seemed flu-like and he was yet another one of those players that we had tested. He was in Oklahoma City because that was the team they were playing on the evening of March 11. And under the auspices of the Oklahoma City health authorities, he was administered a COVID test.

['The most unusual day': How March 11, 2020, marked the start of the COVID era]

So around 7:45 on the evening of March 11, I was heading home from the office. My office is in New York City and I live in New York City. So it's not a very long ride. I had just gotten into a car, you know, right around 7:45. And I received a call from our general counsel, Rick Buchanan. And he said, ‘We just got a test result from Rudy Gobert. And he's COVID positive.’ And, you know, the immediate issue was, should we cancel the game now? [Gobert] was not in the arena. He hadn't stepped into the arena, he'd only been around his teammates the day before. The game was scheduled to tip off roughly at seven o'clock local time in Oklahoma City. So that was going to be in 15 minutes.

As I was talking, I saw another call on my cellphone. And it was Clay Bennett, who’s the principal owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And he said, “I’ve just heard that there's a positive case from the other team. What are we going to do here?” He was at the game, and he was standing on the court. And he said, “You realize the players are on the floor.” So we made an immediate decision to have the players returned to their locker rooms, so we can have at least a few minutes to figure out what we were doing. And incidentally, there were also roughly 19,000 people in his arena.

So we were concerned about what it could mean for the fans who were in the building, certainly what it could mean for his team, other members of the Utah Jazz. So all the players were sent back to the locker room, I think I had one more conversation with our office to see whether the Oklahoma City health authorities were going to direct us not to play. And within that short amount of time, and within that five-to-10-minute period, we didn’t receive any directives. So at that point, we the NBA, I made a decision that we needed to call that game and then work with the team to announce to the assembled crowd, the 19,000 people or so, that they needed to exit the arena. And we made a decision that, you know, let’s make sure nobody feels that there’s a panic of any sort. Let’s do it in a calm way. So we moved the fans out of the building.

Fans depart
Fans depart after the cancellation of a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City on March 11, 2020. (Alonzo Adams/USA Today via Reuters)

After discussion with Oklahoma City health authorities, they announced that neither team should leave their locker room, and that both teams need to be tested before they return to the community. The issue then became for the Utah Jazz, what was going to happen to them after they were tested? Because again, so little was known. It wasn’t clear where they should go from the arena. I think there was, of course, concern that there might be infected teammates.

So we all decided that they shouldn’t necessarily potentially infect, either the flight attendants or the pilots on the plane they were planning to get on. And there was also concern as to whether they should go into a hotel in Oklahoma City. So several hours went by where the team remained in the locker room.

At this point, now I’m home in New York, but I was in constant discussion with Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who is advising me as to what was happening in the arena. At one point, Sam was making arrangements for cots to be brought into the arena for the players to sleep. Now that these additional COVID tests were taken, I mean, ultimately, around 11 p.m., local time in Oklahoma City, we did find a hotel that was willing to take in these players and made arrangements that they could enter in a way that wouldn't expose any other guests to them. And as it turned out, once the results came back, there was at least one other player on the Utah Jazz who had been affected and none of the players from Oklahoma City Thunder, I think because there was so little contact between the two teams. They had literally just come out onto the court for a shootaround before the game.

But now the question became, what about the other teams that are playing? We made a decision that at that point it didn’t make sense to stop the games in progress. Those games that were ongoing and there’s a shot that stands out in my head of Mark Cuban, who was sitting courtside at one of the games. And clearly he gets a text message or some sort of alert on his phone that the season had been suspended.

Mark Cuban
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. (Ron Jenkins/AP)

We had one other game that evening that hadn't started yet. And that was out in Sacramento, and New Orleans was scheduled to play them that night. And so the question became now what should we do with that game, because the fans were already in the building.

We then learned that one of the officials who was scheduled to work that game that night in Sacramento had officiated at a Utah Jazz game earlier in the week. So that made that decision relatively straightforward. We canceled that game. And we announced we were now on, I think, what we were calling at the time a “hiatus.”

I remember it being a very emotional decision for me, because when, as I said, I was on my way home from work, and I ended up sitting in a car, outside my apartment building for about 20 minutes on the phone. And I was late to have dinner with my wife. And I walked in our apartment, and I said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened.” And I felt, you know, this, this surge of emotion. I think that because of the ticktock of the real-time events, or what I was dealing with, I really didn’t have a moment to take it in. And I did sort of have an overwhelming feeling when I walked in to say I just made a decision that we’re shutting down the entire NBA.

[Also read: An oral history of March 11, 2020, the day COVID 'became real' for Americans]

I will say, at that point, I couldn’t have imagined that we were about to shut down the NBA as we knew it, for essentially, you know, the next nine months or so. It was, to me, at least in that moment, it seemed like we would be dealing with a relatively short-term issue. There’d be new protocols put in place, and that we would restart in a few weeks. So that that was my state of mind that evening.

We didn’t have any real sense of what the safety protocols should be in terms of their travel, or even how contagious this disease was. So I can’t say it felt so global to me. In that sense, I wouldn’t have predicted then that, essentially, a year later, someone would be interviewing me and describe to me what it was like on March 11. It didn't feel it was that sort of magnitude. I was much more focused in that moment on the impact of the league that I run. And frankly, tens of thousands of jobs are dependent on this league, and what was going to happen next, you know, as as I said many times after that evening, while it was a very difficult decision to shut down the week, it wasn’t all that complicated. We had a positive case. We didn't know how quickly this was spread. We need to stop operating. What I quickly learned to understand was far more complex: How do you restart? And how do you restart under these highly unusual circumstances? Is it appropriate to restart for that matter? And so I’d say relatively shortly after that evening, all my attention turned to what’s the new normal for us? Or is there going to be a way for us to operate during a pandemic?

Adam Silver
NBA commissioner Adam Silver at the All-Star game in Atlanta on Sunday. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

What I now know is we should have all avoided any sense of certitude around this virus. I wouldn’t have said much of what I said at the time. I was busy predicting that we would shut be shut down for 30 days at most. And I think what I’ve come to understand is that this virus is firmly in charge. That doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do to respond to it. But we all have to become comfortable with living with this huge degree of uncertainty.

I think the biggest difference now from a year ago is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Last March 11, when we were shutting down, there was a sense of a dark cloud that was overhead, and there was no sense that things were going to improve anytime soon. And I think now, you know, as we’re seeing vaccines being distributed at increasingly rapid rates, the almost miraculous success of these vaccines, something no one was predicting back then. I mean, timelines for vaccines were usually measured in years, not in months. And so as I look back now, a year later, I feel fairly optimistic. I mean, I have a sense that certainly by next season, while there may be some changes in protocols, I at least can imagine scenarios of full buildings. I think we’re gonna have to be very vigilant about safety protocols, and maybe they’ll require some adjustments market by market. But at least here I am now, heading to mid-March, we’re getting close to two-thirds of our buildings. At least have some fans in their arenas, again, that depends on local ordinance and some NBA rules, depending on the jurisdiction, but I’m beginning to have a sense that things are returning to maybe a new normal. And I’m actually very excited about that.


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