NBA in uncharted waters after unprecedented decision to suspend season

Sportsnet’s Michael Grange explains how the NBA suspending its season will affect the Toronto Raptors.

It was the perfect ending to the season’s longest road trip, another high point in a Toronto Raptors season that has delivered them in bunches.

Undermanned, on the road, playing at altitude and coming off a difficult win the night before in Sacramento, Toronto somehow fought through every excuse laying in front of them and flew home from Utah in the wee hours of Tuesday morning with a win over the Jazz in their pocket, a four-game winning streak on the hop and a couple well-earned days off to look forward to.

It was a professional win by a team aiming at bigger things and they were feeling it.

“I don’t know who makes excuses, but we don’t,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry told reporters after the game. “… Our team is unbelievable with just staying in the moment and understanding what we have to do. … The way we operate, the way we do things, the way we go about our business, we’re pros. Guys come in and do their job and get their work in. There is a real seriousness to what we do.”

Things got serious in a hurry.

Barely 48 hours later, one of the Raptors’ biggest wins was rendered a mere footnote. It wasn’t the result, but who they earned it against that suddenly mattered.

Because Wednesday night, when several members of the team and the organization were celebrating the launch of head coach Nick Nurse’s new charitable foundation, a thunderbolt struck that will reverberate around the Raptors, the NBA and all sports for weeks and months to come.

A Utah Jazz player – widely reported to be centre Rudy Gobert – had tested positive for COVID-19, the highly contagious and, in many cases, lethal virus that has been deemed a global pandemic just two months after it first surfaced in China.

What was the most memorable moment in the Raptors’ win over Utah?

A lot of fans might cite Raptors forward OG Anunoby getting into a close-quarters shoving match with Gobert in the game’s final minute, with both players earning ejections, the moment capturing Utah’s frustration and the Raptors’ unwillingness to bend.

Now it means a lot more.

The Jazz were moments away from tipping off against the Oklahoma City Thunder when the game was postponed and then cancelled once it was learned that Gobert had reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

Things unfolded quickly after that. The NBA had already been in talks Wednesday about the mushrooming health crisis and the expectation was the league was going to play the remainder of the regular season – about a month’s worth of games – without fans in attendance, with most predicting that the NHL, MLB and MLS would likely follow suit.

But when Gobert reportedly tested positive everything was flung upside down, rending the best-laid plans like deck furniture in a tornado.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., the league announced it was suspending the season. “The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the release read.

According to sources, it wasn’t long after that the Raptors players and staff were being tested for the virus that has had a mortality rate of about three per cent, globally.

Suspending the season was a move without precedent in the face of a threat almost without precedence in modern times, but the league had no choice.

While much of the literature around COVID-19 focuses on how it might spread in everyday life – picking up residual germs from a handrail, an elevator button or having the bad luck to be close to an infected person’s cough or sneeze – there can’t be a better transmission factory than an NBA game where players sweat and breathe heavily on each other in close proximity for 48 minutes a night.

And when it’s all done? It’s hugs and handshakes all around – the elbow bump hadn’t yet made it to the league.

With games being played every other night by teams travelling the continent like circus full of tall men, the effect of one player or one team being exposed gets amplified exponentially.

Over the course of 10 days – or roughly a timeline consistent with what is believed to be the incubation period for COVID-19 – the Jazz have played six games in five cities and each of their opponents have done about the same. A graphic put together neatly shows how little separation there is between teams and players across the league with the entire 30-team league connected to the Jazz and their opponents in the space of five days.

The Raptors and their team staff – as well as other recent Jazz opponents — have been advised to “self-quarantine” for a period that could be up to two weeks. Maybe by then, the injury plagued team will be healthy. Hopefully by then that will be their only concern.

As the word spread around the league, it was a communal “Oh, [expletive]” moment, with the assistant coach of a recent Jazz opponent finding out over dinner on the road and being thrust into the surreal: a global pandemic hitting home between the main course and dessert.

It made for some instantly iconic moments, like a flower somehow sprouting up between cracks in the concrete. By the time the Atlanta Hawks game against the New York Knicks was winding down, news that the league was suspending play had filtered around the league. It became apparent that there was a very real possibility that Wednesday night could end up being Vince Carter’s last NBA game, winding down an unprecedented 22-year career, robbing him of one last visit to Toronto scheduled for April.

Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce subbed Carter in for the final 19 seconds and the former Raptors icon drilled a three on his first and possibly last touch.

That he was mobbed by teammates and opponents alike probably doesn’t follow infectious disease protocol, but only time will tell how long Carter’s last shot lingers.

The NBA and all of sports are now in uncharted waters. There are plenty of questions: When will play resume? What will other leagues do? Will the regular season simply be cancelled, and the playoffs started as everything stands now? Will fans be allowed to watch games if and when it does? Or will the season simply fade away as far greater concerns move to the forefront and stay there?

For now, there are no answers and there may not be for days or weeks or longer.

It’s the most exciting time of the year for basketball, and the Raptors are one of the most enriching stories in the sport.

But none of it seems to matter for the moment.

The NBA with its cool social media presence has always been the league that has “gone viral” in the best and most modern sense.

Going viral this way is all too literal, too sobering and altogether different.

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