The NBA—and, really, the United States—reached a tipping point on Wednesday night, when the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz were meant to face off at OKC’s Chesapeake Energy Arena. Right before game time, Thunder head trainer Donnie Strack hurriedly approached the referees with an urgent message: Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. Within an hour, the game would be canceled; within two hours, the NBA season would be postponed. And through it all, beat reporters for the two basketball teams, stuck inside the arena, were now documenting a pandemic.
Below, those reporters—as well as the halftime performer who was thrust into an unexpected pacifying role—discuss what they experienced while stuck at one of the strangest events in sports history.
The coronavirus saga started months ago, but the Utah Jazz showed up on the timeline on Monday, March 9, during a now-infamous press conference with Rudy Gobert. The All-Star center answered questions about basketball matters and coronavirus concerns during a postgame conference and then, as he stood up to leave, jokingly touched all the microphones on the table. On Wednesday night, as Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test result came to light, that bad joke earned him a day of being roasted on social media, and led him to issue a heartfelt apology. Ben Anderson, a reporter for KSL Sports in Utah, was seated closest to Gobert for the entirety of the Monday press conference.
Anderson is thus far feeling fine and isn’t upset with Gobert. “Pointing at Gobert as the issue here is willingly naive at best, if not aggressively accusational towards one player,” he says, specifically referencing a critical Gobert tweet by ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski that has drawn criticism from other basketball reporters. “They’re traveling all the time and could’ve gotten it anywhere. This takes our eyes off the goal of how to prevent it. You can’t quarantine it down to a Patient Zero like that.”
In Gobert’s defense, he wasn’t feeling ill on Monday. That changed by Wednesday, when rumors about his health began swirling, though nothing specific about his condition could be confirmed. Maddie Lee, a reporter for the Oklahoman, headed to Chesapeake Energy Arena expecting an unusual night, but nothing like what actually unfolded. “We hadn’t reached the level of panic you’ve seen in other cities like Seattle, where my family lives,” she says.
The pregame scene was run-of-the-mill. The NBA had already announced crowds would be banned after this contest, an acknowledgement of the health risks associated with large gatherings. Fans in the crowd tossed tennis balls back and forth. ESPN reporter Royce Young noticed that Thunder player Terrance Ferguson was sitting in a courtside seat reserved for fans, examining film with an assistant coach. “It was bizarre looking around the arena and watching the normalcy that was still taking place,” he says.
After Thunder head trainer Donnie Strack bolted to the referees and broke the Gobert news, the players were told to head back to their benches. “Fans started tapping us on the shoulder trying to figure out what was happening,” Oklahoman reporter Lee says. “We had no idea either.”
While the NBA league office was confronted with deciding the game’s fate, an utterly perplexed Frankie J, the R&B/Latin pop singer featured on the 2003 hit song “Suga Suga,” was standing at the media security entrance of the arena. He had flown to Oklahoma City on Tuesday, having originally been booked to perform at halftime. When he arrived in the city, he was told the NBA wanted him to undergo a wellness check.
So, on Wednesday morning, he and his crew dutifully visited a doctor’s office and had the equivalent of a physical, which they passed. They headed to the arena at 7:15 p.m., passed through the metal detectors, and then…no one was there to escort them. “We were looking at the monitors and saw that both teams were being taken off the courts,” Frankie J says. “We were dumbfounded. In the midst of all of that, we were listening to conversations from staff about how the game was going to get canceled. And then they showed up and said, ‘All right, you’re going on now!’ That caught me off guard, but I was just happy to be there, blessed to be there.”
A sports league at the mercy of a pandemic was collapsing in real time, and Frankie J had been chosen to keep the crowd entertained. “I felt like I was in the middle of some crossfire,” he says. “There were some fans trying to figure out what was going on, and you could feel it. I could feel that energy from the crowd.”
Frankie J finished performing, was escorted off stage, and handed a check. Soon after, around 7:40 p.m., the public-address announcer told the crowd that the game was canceled, though he was hard to hear clearly. “The words I glommed on to were ‘unforeseen circumstances,’ ” Lee says.
The crowd made its way to the exits in a relatively orderly fashion, while members of the media headed in the direction of the tunnel hallway that connects the players’ locker rooms. Thunder personnel beelined for the backdoor exits, as did Oklahoma governor Kevin Stitt, who went to the game with his son.
Thunder beat writer Erik Horne, who covers the team for The Athletic, wanted to catch a player or two in the tunnel, or at least capture some scene-setting moments in the chaos. Simultaneously, he couldn’t help but feel anxious and uncertain about what was going on right in front of him. “When you see people running from something and you don’t know what it is, you think you should start running too,” he says. “All the zombie movies start going through your head. It ended up taking me a really long time to write, longer than usual. Frankly, I don’t think many people had answers. You’re trying to get answers because it’s your job, but you’re also trying to weigh your own emotions.”
A stalemate ensued near the tunnel hallway. For hours, media members refused to budge from their spot, hoping to get a better sense of what was going on behind the scenes. They continued tweeting out updates and writing stories. Young did live TV hits on ESPN about the Jazz players, who were still in the locker room awaiting the elusive COVID-19 testing kits. At 10:40 p.m., Sarah Todd, a Jazz beat writer for the Deseret News, tweeted about the double-standard at work—she and colleagues had spent months around the same Utah players, but they were totally in the dark about whether they’d be tested too.
Salt Lake Tribune Jazz reporter Andy Larsen agreed with Todd, and got on the phone with the NBA league office as well as Jazz officials, asking each for an explanation and a testing kit. A little after 11 p.m., Larsen, Todd, and Tony Jones from The Athletic were informed they’d be tested after all. Roughly 30 minutes after the Jazz players completed their tests, the three beat writers were ushered into the locker room, where the players—sans Gobert, who wasn’t there—remained in a separate section.
Nurses administered the rarified COVID-19 test to the reporters one at a time: a swab in the back of the throat, and a swab in the sinuses at the top of the nose. Then there was nothing to do but wait. Larsen left the arena around 1 a.m. The test loomed over him, especially because he had recently eaten dinner with his parents. “The stress was hitting me all night,” he says. “I have one of those heart rate Fitbit watches, and my heart rate was at 100 for four straight hours.” He says he slept for maybe an hour-and-a-half.
The Oklahoman’s Lee and The Athletic’s Horne also stayed at the arena until roughly 1 a.m., though they and Young (who stayed until 3 a.m.) didn’t get tested for COVID-19. While Horne waited around for players, he spotted health officials coming and going, carrying boxes of gloves and masks and other materials. “It was a weird scene,” he says. “The players never came through the door we were next to. I think they purposely let us sit there and then brought the guys around a different way.”
All of the beat reporters are home now in Utah and Oklahoma. The three Jazz writers who were tested for COVID-19 received negative results, were allowed to travel on a chartered plane with the team, and are self-quarantining for 14 days. Utah star Donovan Mitchell, in addition to Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19. (How the Jazz organization was able to obtain so many tests in advance given the testing shortage nationwide is a contentious subject. On Thursday, the entire Thunder team was also tested for coronavirus.)
KSL Sports’s Anderson, who was at Monday’s press conference in close proximity to Gobert (but not at the game), was asked by his employer to self-quarantine for 14 days. He was also asked to contact the Utah health department hotline, which told him that Gobert’s bad joke likely didn’t put him at risk. Anderson’s biggest qualm with the press conference experience is how others in his orbit have reacted to it. “When people are reaching out to me, nobody is saying, ‘Hey are you okay?’ It’s a bunch of, ‘I saw you on CNN!’ I do think that’s our problem right now,” he says. “We’re talking about the media exposure of this rather than the health implications. It’s shocking how little respect we have for how dangerous this is.”
The Oklahoma-based reporters, like the rest of America, are mostly left to make their own decisions around whether to self-quarantine. Lee, who wasn’t in close proximity to Jazz players, is choosing to do so, even though she was told 24 hours of isolation would be enough. “I don’t know exactly how long I’m supposed to do this,” she says. “I really don’t want to spread it to anyone else, and I don’t know what will happen if a Thunder player tests positive. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
ESPN’s Young, who slept a grand total of 53 minutes between Wednesday evening and Thursday evening (that includes an eight-minute couch nap on Thursday afternoon), says he’s just now processing what occurred on Wednesday: “I’ve been thinking back on whether I met the moment. You realize this is a global story, and it’s not a story you sought out. I don’t know... the magnitude of it is wild.”
And then there’s Frankie J, who trended on social media after his performance, and had to explain to followers that he had not tested positive for coronavirus. “I’ve never experienced anything in my entire career quite like this,” he says.
Frankie J flew back to his home in San Diego on Thursday, and says he received a lovely message from a Thunder employee thanking him for coming to Oklahoma City. If he’s invited to perform at another NBA halftime show someday, he’ll happily accept.
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Originally Appeared on GQ