Adam Silver reflects on halting the NBA season one year later

The NBA commissioner spoke with Yahoo News White House Correspondent Hunter Walker and looked back at the drama that unfolded on March 11, 2020 as games were postponed following a positive COVID-19 test and the season was eventually forced into a four-month long hiatus.

Video Transcript

ADAM SILVER: So on March 11, we had-- we knew we were dealing with a potential situation that would require us to reduce the number of fans in buildings. A few national public health officials, most notably, my recollection is Dr. Fauci, testified at a congressional hearing on March 11 that the NBA and other leagues should consider playing without fans but not shutting down the entire league.

Earlier in the day on March 11, we had convened a meeting with our Players Association, led by Michele Roberts, and we had done some planning and some theorizing about various scenarios. And that included at that point potentially taking a short hiatus. Because we realized that we might not have in place the appropriate protocols on cleanliness.

And so to me, at that point, contact tracing was not a familiar term, certainly social distancing wasn't. So in my recollection, it was more about cleanliness and the things that we can do in terms of proper cleaning procedures. But even on that call on the afternoon of March 11, we still were not seriously planning for an entire shutdown of the league.

We were, at that point, looking at the potential for a market by market reduction number of fans. We were talking about what that could mean from a competitive standpoint, if some teams had full arenas and others didn't. So on March 10, I guess it was, Rudy Gobert from the Utah Jazz first 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. Everyone was aware that there was a game that night.

Because he wasn't feeling well, he wasn't scheduled to play in that game. But he had had contact with other teammates. And I received a call from our General Counsel at the NBA, whose name is Rick Buchanan, and he said, we just got a test result from Rudy Gobert, and he's COVID positive.

And, you know, so the immediate issue was, should we cancel the game? Now, he was not in the arena, he hadn't stepped into the arena. He'd only been around his teammate the day before. And we knew also that the game was scheduled to tip off roughly at 7 o'clock local time in Oklahoma City. So that was going to be in 15 minutes.

As I was talking to Rick Buchanan, I saw another call on my cell phone, 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? 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.

- They don't have the services of Rudy Gobert. East Coast Swing in Detroit--

- I believe they just called the game off.

- --on the second night of a back to back. And we're not really sure--

ADAM SILVER: 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 other infected teammates. 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, who is the general manager or team president of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who was 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.

So now, still on the evening of March 11, the question became, what about the other teams that are playing? We made a decision that at this point, it didn't make sense to stop 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.

But 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 now 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. And we then canceled that game. And we announced we were now on, I think what we were calling it at the time, a hiatus.

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

So in that sense, I wouldn't have predicted then that essentially a year later, someone would be interviewing me and saying, describe to me what it was like on March 11. 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?