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We know all that has come afterward — more than 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths and 29 million COVID-19 cases in the United States alone — but for many, the suspension of the NBA's 2019-20 season on March 11, 2020, was the moment the pandemic entered our waking consciousness as a threat to the normalcy we took for granted.
In retrospect, the mistakes made are striking, largely because we knew so little about the virus' spread. Regardless, we were slow to take the coronavirus seriously, at least until two-time Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year-winning center Rudy Gobert returned positive COVID-19 tests mere minutes apart.
Gobert retroactively became a laughingstock for jokingly touching microphones and recorders during distanced media availability days before his diagnosis. As ill-advised as that was, we now know his actions were more unlikely to spread the virus than the indoor mask-less news conference itself. Far less is said about the NBA hosting its All-Star Game on Feb. 16, 2020 — complete with Gobert, his fellow stars from around the country and 17,808 fans in attendance — in the same city that reported the first known person-to-person spread of the virus two weeks prior.
Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum was two days ahead of the NBA when it came to limiting interaction with fans, and Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James was still vehemently against hosting fan-less games a week later — all well after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated we were bound for a pandemic.
In a matter of six hours on this day one year ago, the NBA went from the Washington Wizards shirking its district's public health recommendations against mass gatherings "at the direction of" the league to indefinitely suspending the operation of a billion-dollar corporation upon one positive player test. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed U.S. cases was already increasing exponentially by the day, just as it had done earlier from Iran to Italy and across the globe.
The NBA was not alone in its delayed response to the threat. Other leagues were even slower to come around, and beyond sports, there are those among us who still have not. That it took a famous face to make real for many of us the inevitability of quarantines and lockdowns and safety measures and testing and contact tracing is a lesson we should not easily forget. Let this timeline of the NBA's actions in the weeks, days and hours before its business and our everyday lives were altered beyond belief be a reminder of how wise it always is to think globally and act locally.
Jan. 21, 2020
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the first-known coronavirus case in the United States, a patient who six days earlier returned to the state of Washington from travel in Wuhan, China, and sought treatment.
Jan. 30, 2020
The CDC reports the first-known spread of the coronavirus from one person to another in the U.S., as the husband of an infected Chicago woman who traveled to China to care for her ailing father was also diagnosed with the disease. Hours later, the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a global emergency, as China's death toll rises to 213.
Feb. 1, 2020
The Chinese Basketball Association officially suspends play, also restricting its players from signing in the NBA.
Feb. 14, 2020
In response to continued questions about the NBA's rocky relationship with China following former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey's October tweet in support of protesters in Hong Kong, commissioner Adam Silver makes his first public comments addressing coronavirus concerns abroad in a statement to The New York Times.
“Our focus is on working with global health organizations to provide whatever assistance we can to the people of China in response to the coronavirus outbreak," he said. "Many of our Chinese partners were unable to attend our All-Star events because of travel restrictions, but all of the weekend’s events will be carried in China on Tencent.”
Feb. 15, 2020
Silver makes several mentions of the coronavirus during his annual state of the league address over All-Star Weekend in Chicago, largely in the context of overseas relief efforts and its impact on the reconciliation of a relationship with China.
"I'm unsure right now because there has been a huge diversion of resources, as you might imagine, to coronavirus relief, and it's moved to the top of virtually everyone's agenda, particularly in the Wuhan province," Silver says in response to a specific question on the matter. "I think it's the same for the NBA. It's almost hard for us to be having conversations about broadcasting of games when there's a major national, if not global, health crisis happening."
Feb. 29, 2020
The CDC reveals the first-known U.S. death resulting from COVID-19, a Seattle-area man in his early 50s. The news comes amid reports of outbreaks in two metropolitan areas with NBA ties: Portland and San Francisco. (Autopsies reveal in April a pair of earlier coronavirus-related deaths in the Bay Area, the first of which dated back to Feb. 6.)
Portland Trail Blazers star C.J. McCollum addresses the outbreak in Oregon on Twitter.
The Corona Virus has officially hit Oregon. More specifically Lake Oswego...Make sure y’all washing y’all hands with soap for 20 or more seconds & covering ya mouths when you cough. I am officially taking a break from signing autographs until further notice.
— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) February 29, 2020
March 1, 2020
With more than 85,000 diagnosed cases globally and 2,900 deaths, the NBA issues a statement, via the Associated Press, as the number of known cases in the U.S. reaches 69 (including the one reported death): "The health and safety of our employees, teams, players and fans is paramount. We are coordinating with our teams and consulting with the CDC and infectious disease specialists on the coronavirus and continue to monitor the situation closely."
March 2, 2020
The NBA issues a memo to its 30 teams outlining its initial series of "short-term recommendations" to combat the virus, according to ESPN. Among them are the avoidance of autographs and prioritizing fist bumps over high fives.
As the league reportedly warns teams preparing for Portland's Hoop Summit and Chicago's combine that pre-draft scouting opportunities in the spring could become limited, there are no restrictions on travel for the NBA schedule.
March 6, 2020
The NBA issues another memo alerting teams to prepare for the possibility of playing games without fans, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. Per USA Today, multiple NBA executives "have considered playing behind closed doors but only as a last-resort contingency plan." Postponements and cancellations are made by the league office.
Meanwhile, Morey serves as co-chair of the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which hosts a vast collection of popular athletes, media members and executives, among other notable and largely NBA-centric speakers, in front of a live audience at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. It is the world's largest student-run conference.
March 7, 2020
Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James refuses to play games without fans.
LeBron James on possibility of NBA playing games behind closed doors because of coronavirus. LeBron: “I ain’t playing” if there are no fans pic.twitter.com/kpHg6bsFYO
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 7, 2020
"We play games without the fans?" he said in response to the NBA's memo. "No, that's impossible. I ain't playing if I ain't got the fans in the crowd. That's who I play for. I play for my teammates, I play for the fans. That's what it's all about, so if I show up to an arena and there ain't no fans in there, I ain't playing. They can do what they want to do."
Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors do not heed a warning from the San Francisco Department of Public Health against "non-essential large gatherings," opting instead to host the Philadelphia 76ers as scheduled in front of fans.
This occurs as the NBA issues another memo, requiring teams to take steps related to testing and social distancing.
New memo to to teams says each is required to have several plans in place by Tuesday, including arrangement with an infectious disease specialist, the IDing of a facility to test for coronavirus, a plan to limit number of team and arena staff who'd interact with players. https://t.co/qsmIf30Fxe
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) March 8, 2020
As the NHL restricts media from dressing rooms, the NBA is expected to follow suit.
March 9, 2020
Sure enough, when the Utah Jazz open media availability at shootaround, players meet reporters in a distanced news conference setting. At the conclusion of his interview, Jazz center Rudy Gobert touches each microphone and recorder laid out in front of him, an apparent joke at the expense of his team's newly enforced distancing measures.
— Lionel Bienvenu (@lionelbienvenu) March 12, 2020
March 10, 2020
On the first day of league-wide restricted media access, James reverses course on the possibility of fan-less arenas, telling reporters, "Well it's funny, because when I was asked the question of would you play without no fans, I had no idea that there was actually a conversation going behind closed doors about the particular virus. ... But at the same time, you got to listen to the people that's keeping track of what's going on. If they feel like it's best for the safety of the players, the safety of the franchise, the safety of the league to mandate that, then we all listen to it."
March 11, 2020
All times Eastern.
12:24 p.m.: The Jazz list Rudy Gobert as questionable for their game in Oklahoma City with an illness.
12:26 p.m.: The WHO officially declares COVID-19 a pandemic.
.@WHO is deeply concerned by the alarming levels of the #coronavirus spread, severity & inaction, & expects to see the number of cases, deaths & affected countries climb even higher. Therefore, we made the assessment that #COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic. https://t.co/97XSmyigME pic.twitter.com/gSqFm947D8
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) March 11, 2020
1:43 p.m.: Not long after Golden State team president Rick Welts meets with San Francisco Mayor London Breed, whose city outlawed gatherings of more than 1,000 people, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reports the Warriors "will be directed" not to host fans for their game against the Brooklyn Nets on March 12. The team soon confirms.
3:13 p.m.: The Wizards announce they will not follow Department of Health guidelines in Washington, D.C.: "At the current direction of the NBA and NHL, our games will go on as scheduled and be open to spectators. We are in constant contact with both leagues and should they update their guidance, we will update the public accordingly."
4:40 p.m.: The NBA is still discussing options to host fans. Via ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
As the NBA's board of governors prepares to confer with the commissioner's office Wednesday in a critical conference call on the coronavirus crisis, one scenario introduced into the league's conversation involves moving some games to NBA cities that have yet to suffer outbreaks.
If the virus clusters and forces a team out of its city and arena for a period of time, there has been discussion about moving games to the away opponent's arena if that city hasn't suffered an outbreak — or even moving games to neutral cities and sites, league sources told ESPN.
The NBA is discussing a number of possibilities — including eliminating fans from buildings for games or, more drastically, suspending game operations for a period of time — but sources said decisions on those options remain complicated by the fact that there has been a limited amount of public testing for the coronavirus in the United States. There is no full understanding of how widespread and debilitating the virus could become in the country.
4:45 p.m.: The Athletic's Sam Amick reports:
The league is still considering more sensible options as well, among them the prospect of pushing its entire calendar back. The NBA has been asking teams to provide its arena schedule through July, which is as clear a sign as any that the notion of putting everything on hold for a while so the authorities can attempt to contain the virus remains in play.
6:50 p.m.: According to Wojnarowski, NBA team owners come to a consensus on a call with the league office: Either host games without fans or go on hiatus. A final decision on the matter is expected to come on Thursday.
8:31 p.m.: The Jazz and Thunder abruptly return to their locker rooms during pregame warmups.
Thunder and Jazz players were sent back to the locker room 😬
No official word on whether the game has been postponed just yet.pic.twitter.com/00sCmLI2uN
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) March 12, 2020
8:40 p.m.: The NBA officially postpones the game between the Jazz and Thunder.
9:14 p.m.: Actor Tom Hanks announces he and wife Rita Wilson have tested positive for the coronavirus.
9:27 p.m.: News breaks of Gobert's positive coronavirus test.
Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert has tested positive for coronavirus, sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium.
Sources say Gobert is feeling good, strong and stable — and was feeling strong enough to play tonight.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 12, 2020
9:32 p.m.: NBA indefinitely suspends the 2019-20 season "following conclusion of tonight's scheduled games."
The NBA will suspend games indefinitely pic.twitter.com/4bPFHIh5E8
— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) March 12, 2020
The NBA announced that a player on the Utah Jazz has preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19. The test result was reported shortly prior to the tip-off of tonight’s game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. At that time, tonight’s game was canceled. The affected player was not in the arena.
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.
9:53 p.m.: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban receives news that the season has been suspended while on the sideline in the third quarter of their game against the Denver Nuggets, the final completed game before the league’s hiatus.
Mark Cuban reacts moments after the NBA season was suspended. pic.twitter.com/4g8Z7yLts6
— ESPN (@espn) March 12, 2020
10:22 p.m.: The Jazz issue a statement, all but confirming Gobert's positive test in the moments "right before tipoff."
10:35 p.m.: An hour after the NBA indefinitely suspended its season moving forward, the final game of the evening's schedule, between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, is still slated to be played. However, referee Courtney Kirkland's presence for Utah's game against the Toronto Raptors two days earlier leaves players uneasy.
“Our guys don’t want to play,” a Pelicans source tells Amick.
10:38 p.m.: Players on both the Pelicans and Kings officially vocalize their fears over Kirkland's contact tracing history with Gobert to the league office and return to their team buses, according to ESPN's Andrew Lopez.
10:55 p.m.: The game between the Pelicans and Kings in Sacramento is canceled "out of an abundance of caution."
11:07 p.m.: Players from five more teams that played the Jazz over the previous week — the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors — are also instructed to self-quarantine.
11:14 p.m.: The Thunder are reportedly permitted to leave Chesapeake Energy Arena. The Jazz remain quarantined.
11:39 p.m.: As the Jazz await COVID-19 test results, which would soon reveal Jazz star Donovan Mitchell had also contracted the coronavirus, arrangements are made for players and personnel to stay in Oklahoma City overnight.
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