NBA nearing difficult decisions as coronavirus concerns grow

NBA commissioner Adam Silver. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

In a season full of twists, turns and occasional lows that only seem to serve as leaping-off points for the next unexpected high, the Toronto Raptors are heading into one of the meatiest and potentially most enjoyable stretches of their schedule.

It’s hard not to get excited about it.

After a four-day break between games winds up Saturday with a home date against former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey and the rebuilding Detroit Pistons, things really heat up.

The Golden State Warriors and newly healthy Steph Curry arrive in Toronto for the first time since the NBA Finals on Monday, March 16. Then it’s a quick visit to Philadelphia, where the Raptors can clinch their season series against a potential playoff opponent.

After that they come home to Scotiabank Arena and run a gauntlet as they host the Boston Celtics in a game that could go a long way towards determining who finishes with the vital second seed in the East; a rematch with Kitchener’s Jamal Murray and the Denver Nuggets; and then – on March 24 – LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to roll into town for what could conceivably be an NBA Finals preview.

With the prospect of the Raptors returning to full health and beginning to build towards the playoffs, it’s the kind of regular-season stretch that can only amplify an already growing giddiness about the approaching post-season.

But as the news about the COVID-19 virus seems to get more worrisome by the day, if not the hour, a pressing and important question looms:

Will those games ever be played? And if they are, will there be any fans in the arena to soak in the deliriousness?

It’s a sobering thought but a necessary consideration as the challenge of containing a fast-spreading contagion with a mortality rate so far of between three-to-four per cent — or 30 to 40 times higher than many common strains of the flu.

We’ll find out soon enough. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA has calls scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday with league governors and executives, respectively, to consider options, which include playing games without fans or even suspending operations.

The league – in cooperation with the NHL, MLB and MLS – has already temporarily changed how players interact with media in response to the virus by eliminating crowded “scrums,” banning reporters from dressing rooms and mandating media to be kept – literally – at a safe distance.

But that’s a minimalist response given the numbers involved. On a busy night at Scotiabank Arena there might be 50 or so media credentialed.

Of far greater concern is the well-being of the 19,800 fans that routinely gather in close quarters for Raptors games and then head off into the night – thousands crowding into public transit before heading home to families who then make their way to school and work. For a highly contagious illness, it’s a perfect amplifier.

The first domino to fall in this regard came Wednesday afternoon, when the Golden State Warriors announced Thursday’s home game against the Brooklyn Nets would be played without fans in the building.

The Seattle Mariners are also working on plans to play their March home games outside of Washington state after governor Jay Inslee announced gatherings of more than 1,000 people were banned state-wide.

It’s easy to think banning fans or cancelling games is being alarmist or reactionary – as of Tuesday there were just 36 confirmed cases in all of Ontario. Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec are the only other provinces reporting any confirmed cases at all.

Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of infectious diseases at Sinai Health and University Health Network and University of Toronto is a Raptors fan, but the prospect of attending a game at the moment makes him shudder, professionally and personally. He paints a scenario where it would only take a small number of unknowingly infected fans to spread the virus to hundreds more as they share handrails, sit at close quarters and use the same ketchup dispensers. If even a fraction of them end up gravely ill the ripple effects could be calamitous: “Now you need an entire hospital’s full ICU [Intensive Care Unit] to take care of these patients,” he said. “Repeat for several games each night, night after night. Have I scared you? Good. That’s what’s happening.”

But examples of how quickly things can spiral are close at hand.

Outside of China, where the virus is thought to have originated, the hardest-hit country has been Italy, where a single confirmed case on Feb. 20 has mushroomed to the point where the entire population – 60 million people – has been placed under ‘lockdown’ as of Monday, with citizens facing fines for unauthorized travel within the country. Schools, cinemas and gyms are all closed.

One of the first steps preceding the lockdown was banning fans from sporting events as of a week ago. While Serie A games went ahead on Sunday behind closed doors, the Italian sports minister called the decision “irresponsible.” Now there are debates about whether the season will continue at all.

An English Premier League match scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed, and matches in France have also. Formula 1 races have been cancelled and at least five European hockey leagues have cancelled or suspended their seasons. The NBA has already delayed the debut of the NBA Africa League, and the Chinese Basketball Association has been suspended indefinitely.

In North America there is the sense that there remains the luxury of time. Known cases are relatively rare and localized. Drastic steps might seem like overkill.

But – as some public health experts have pointed out – compressing thousands of people into one shared space for hours at a time creates a near-perfect environment for a virus to spread.

To use one example, the idea that Raptors fans “travel” has become almost essential to the franchise’s identity. With March break approaching, how many fans at the upcoming games will be arriving from out of town to take in some basketball? What does that mean when thousands of Raptors crazies gather on the road to chant “We the North” and fan outwards again?

It’s one of the best things the Raptors have going for them, but in the moment seems ominous.

Math is the most difficult opponent of all, and there is mounting evidence that based on the rate the virus transfers and the number of interactions people have going about their day-to-day lives, what seems like a manageable problem today can quickly become impossible to contain.

And while it’s true the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are most at risk, the impact would be felt much more widely should the health care system be so overwhelmed by a growing epidemic that the everyday functions are compromised or put on hold. To put it crudely – if hospital ICUs are overcome with an influx of people suffering with severe pneumonia due to COVID-19, it would be a terrible time to have a family member otherwise become deathly ill.

The world is bigger than sports, but it is one of the last places where people from all walks gather spontaneously in large numbers, so the logistical risks are real. And there might be some symbolic weight as well: having sports threatened in some shape or form may drive home how important it is for everyone to take action before it’s too late.

Still, you don’t envy those who have to make the decisions, often without the benefit of the kind of hard data that is lacking in a fast-moving potential crisis. But that’s where the NBA and the other North America sports leagues are at the moment – at the edge of having to make difficult choices with real consequences.

Perhaps an interim solution would be to play games without fans, as strange as that might be. Doing nothing would be even stranger and ultimately foolish.

For the Toronto Raptors as they head into the stretch drive of a dream regular season, the rare case where a team over-delivers against ever-rising expectations on an almost nightly basis, what happens next is very much out of their control.

Few teams have managed to overcome more obstacles more expertly. It’s made their championship defence as enjoyable a regular season as any in recent Toronto sports history.

No one would want to see their momentum interrupted or worse.

But for the moment all that can be done is wait and see.

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