Inside the questions surrounding life in NBA’s return-to-play bubble

Faizal Khamisa, Danielle Michaud and Donnovan Bennett break down the news that 22 NBA teams will be heading to Orlando, Florida to restart the season on July 31st.

And so we enter the unknown.

Late next month NBA players and staff will be descending on Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando for one of the strangest experiments ever undertaken in the annals of professional sport.

Riskiest? Maybe that too.

It won’t be hard labour, let’s be clear. We’re not talking coal mining.

As they gather for the 2019-20 season 2.0, under a lavish quarantine bubble, there will plenty of ways to while away their free time in between playing enough games to ‘complete’ the regular season before heading into the playoffs.

With a nod to Michael Jordan, the golfers in the crowd can choose from one of three courses on site. They will be able to eat at restaurants outside in the warmth of the Florida sun, or take room service at their five-star hotel.

Like a game of Survivor for millionaires with a dash of Celebrity Big Brother, the NBA is back.

But the league that loves to call itself a family is heading to one of the world’s most popular summer holiday spots mostly hoping that they can finish the season untouched by forces they don’t control, and that the family can remain intact under one ‘roof’ for weeks on end.

We’ll see. Globally the pandemic is adding more than 100,000 new cases daily and locally the virus hardly seems dormant, with the state of Florida having its largest and third largest single-day jumps in new cases on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, although higher testing rates are likely a factor in that.

Yet after a 29-1 vote of the board of governors — the committee representing the mostly-billionaire owners of the 30 franchises — on Thursday and what is expected to be a largely rubber-stamped players union approval Friday, the 2019-20 season will resume in late July with plans calling for a champion to be crowned no later than October 12.

Can it work? Maybe.

“If everyone is trying to do the right thing, this is an easy thing to do,” says Andrew Morris, the medical director of the Antimicrobial Stewardship Program at the Sinai Health System and a Harvard-trained epidemiologist. “If everyone stays within the bubble, if everyone is social distanced and everyone is tested properly and all the protocols are followed, all is good. The problem is when here you have a variety of motivations for it not to occur properly, right?

“It’s going to be a challenge, but I guess money is a strong motivation,” says Morris.

Doubtless a lot of good can come from the NBA’s return. The league’s social conscience and platform is needed now in the wake of the unrest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. Watching how the league, its players and teams push the issue forward when play resumes could be a pivotal moment in league history, if not beyond.

And the demand — pent-up demand — for the product, as they say, promises to be at an almost unprecedented level.

The NBA has already established basketball as a year-round sport with the draft, free agency, the Las Vegas Summer League and international competition all providing diehard fans with their fix of drama and intrigue long after the NBA Finals traditionally wrap up in June.

We now can look forward to nearly two months of hype around a delicious list of storylines before the playoffs begin.

Will LeBron bring a title to the Lakers and drum up more of the GOAT debate? Will Kawhi Leonard earn his second title in as as many years, justifying his Machiavellian off-season maneuvers of a year ago? Will Giannis Antetokounmpo lead Milwaukee to their first title since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still known as Lou Alcindor, and will the Bucks star stake his claim as the best the league has to offer?

Or, can the Toronto Raptors embark on a title run even more unlikely — in the eyes of prognosticators — than the one that earned them the championship they are defending?

So yeah, this can all work and work spectacularly.

But can it fail? Absolutely.

Silver and the NBA are betting that it won’t by keeping the number of team, league, broadcast and hospitality personnel to a relatively skeleton crew of perhaps 1,500 and having them tested regularly, perhaps daily. They are betting that they can keep the bubble COVID-free for 10 weeks.

Risk is relative, of course. The whole exercise is an example of what can sometimes seem like an upside-down set of priorities.

It’s worth pointing out that — like all of us — those in the bubble will need to eat. And while there’s a lot of handwringing about gathering a population of some of the healthiest, well-resourced people on the planet in a controlled environment and testing them as much as could conceivably be needed, no one seems too concerned when migrant farm workers labouring for minimum wage in close quarters picking fruit and vegetables have to deal with a risk of an outbreak sweeping through their place of work.

It’s no different in the meat-packing industry where outbreaks have come hard and often, or in other lines of work deemed essential but with a fraction of the protections being put in place to protect LeBron James and co.

But as Morris points out, the risks are different for a professional athlete. Healthy young people in their 20s have fared well during the pandemic but even among those that get COVID and ‘recover,’ symptoms can linger.

The road to the entrance of Walt Disney World. (John Raoux / AP)

For most of us, being at 80 per cent of our peak for an extended period means not much in our daily life. We can muddle along.

For those whose job requirements are being world class, even a three-per-cent long-term impairment can shape their career outcomes. A 10-per-cent slide probably means they are out of work.

Not to mention that of all the sports trying to find their way back to the field of play, basketball is the one where breathing hard and nearly face-to-face with your opponents is most essential to doing the job right.

“It would be very interesting to know if [players] were presented with statistics or eventualities, would they assume the same kind of risk and who would or wouldn’t,” says Morris. “What is their protection should they become infected? What happens if a player gets seriously ill? How [is the league] going to respond?”

These are the details that have yet to be worked out.

The league earned high marks when it so quickly shuttered its doors on March 11th after a trainer for the Oklahoma City Thunder ran onto the floor moments before the ball went up in their game against the Utah Jazz to tell the referees that a Jazz player — Rudy Gobert — had tested positive for COVID 19.

And NBA commissioner Adam Silver was widely praised back when he preached that “data not the date” would determine the league’s plan of action.

How accurate that catchphrase will prove to be will be interesting to monitor as the league tries to stem its bleeding financially and the rubber hits the wood.

It is reported that by stuffing in 88 regular season games before the playoffs, NBA players will cut the collective salary they would otherwise have lost by about $300 million. Getting a full playoff schedule in on top of that is worth about $900 million to the league, with about half of that going to the players.

And, to be fair, the league hasn’t rushed anything. By the time training camps start the league will have been dormant for nearly four months. There will have been nearly five months between games when play resumes.

But with the dates in place, what role the data will have is another question.

The league is hoping exhaustive testing protocols — daily for those in the bubble — will serve as an early warning and detection system.

But sports have proven notoriously poor at testing in the past. Does anyone really trust the NHL’s concussion protocols being properly executed in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final? And it’s not like performance-enhancing drugs are a thing of the past anywhere big money and sport intersect.

Human nature is a powerful force and the reality is that almost everyone involved has a stake in the return-to-play plans unfolding without a hitch. Ideally that will translate into everyone modifying behaviour accordingly and being honest about symptoms and everything else.

Who can be trusted to test properly? Team medical staff? League medical staff? Opposing team medical staff?

“Everyone in the whole circle of care here has potentially perverse incentives when one or two tests could bring down everything,” says Morris.

Even without those factors, testing is potentially complicated. The NBA has to navigate the near certainty of wonky test results. Testing for COVID-19 only works about 75 per cent of the time, meaning out of 100 people with the virus, 25 per cent will get missed. There is also the possibility of false positives, where about one per cent of those tested end up positives, throwing another wrench into things.

So yes, the NBA is back. There is plenty of reason for excitement. But it’s probably worth keeping the jets cooled a little bit.

“This whole process is depending on everyone absolutely caring tons to not only make sure they don’t get infected but if they do get infected, they get detected,” says Morris.

“And if it doesn’t, the house of cards falls.”

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