One year later: How the NBA took lead in addressing COVID-19

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March 11, 2020 started out like any other Wednesday — well not exactly. The day before, more than 700 coronavirus cases had been reported across the United States, causing many colleges and universities to halt in-person classes and shift to online instruction. However, most people were still working in offices and most public schools were still open.

By 12:26 p.m. ET the WHO had officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

However, on that day, the NBA still had a full slate of games to play. In days prior, the league had engaged in ongoing talks about limiting fan attendance or perhaps having no fans at all, but talks were slow and methodical.

At 8 p.m. ET the Utah Jazz were set to play against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City. Everything seemed normal; both teams were fully warmed up and in their respective team huddles, the refs were on the court and the stadium was packed with fans. Then, it all began to unfold.

“Next thing you know, you see a bunch of guys in suits run out. I thought it was the FBI,” said Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell in an interview with Bleacher Report.

Both teams stood in their respective huddles, watching everything unfold. Thunder team officials had run onto the court to relay a message over to the referees: Do not let this game start.

“We were just told we got to go back [to the locker room],” Mitchell said. “I walked back thinking ‘alright we’ll be back out in 45 minutes.’”

After returning to the locker room, Utah was informed that its center, Rudy Gobert, had just tested positive for the coronavirus.

Gobert did not travel to the arena with the team because he was feeling ill earlier in the day; he had remained in the hotel that the Jazz were staying at. Even though Gobert was absent from the arena, the Jazz immediately began quarantining in their visitors’ locker room, where they ended up staying for the next six hours to undergo strict testing measures.

Immediately following his diagnosis, video surfaced from two days prior of Gobert mocking the spread of the virus by purposely and excessively touching media microphones following a press conference. The entire world was quick to crucify Gobert for his actions with some even going as far as blaming him for bringing the coronavirus into the United States, an entirely false claim.

At 8:39 p.m. ET Oklahoma City Thunder PA announcer Mario Nanni made the announcement to fans in the arena that “due to unforeseen circumstances, the game tonight has been postponed.” The decision left many fans booing in utter confusion before they slowly filtered out from the rafters.

By 9:31 p.m. ET, the NBA announced that it had suspended its 2020 season altogether. The whole day seemed like something out of a movie.

It felt like some sort of nightmare that we would all wake up from the next morning, something all too strange to be true. But sure enough, the next day saw the rest of the sports world follow suit: March Madness was canceled. The NHL season was suspended indefinitely. The MLB season was postponed. The MLS season was suspended. In short, sports were officially on hiatus.

While COVID-19 was beginning to spread among us, most had not yet accepted the reality of the pain and hardship that the virus would bring. It wasn’t until this moment that we realized things would be getting significantly worse before they got better.

Following the resurfacing of the video in which he mocked the spread of the virus, Gobert apologized via his Instagram.

“I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously,” Gobert wrote. “I will do whatever I can to support using my experience as a way to educate others and prevent the spread of this virus.”

On that night of March 11, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver knew he had to make an executive decision — and quickly. He realized that every team that played against Utah and any referee that officiated a Jazz game in the past two weeks could be a potential carrier of the coronavirus. And he acted on that realization.

In an ESPN “30 For 30” podcast detailing the events of that night, host Jody Avirgan concluded “Right or wrong, sports have an ability to spark national conversation in ways that some other institutions no longer can, or maybe never have. We look to sports for something. Sometimes it’s distraction, sometimes it’s passion, but sometimes it’s leadership. That’s what the NBA provided in this one moment.”

Looking back just over a year later, it’s astonishing to see the profound effect that the NBA had in getting us all to understand that COVID-19 is something that we needed to address as a country as soon as we possibly could.

Sarah Todd, a Jazz beat reporter who was at the infamous Utah-Oklahoma City contest on March 11 put it perfectly on that same podcast.

“It feels like Rudy Gobert testing positive and leading to the NBA shutting down potentially saved thousands of lives,” Todd said.

Conner Parker covers rowing. Contact him at [email protected].