Raptors’ cautious return to activities a step forward on long road ahead

Toronto Raptors' Malcolm Miller gets set to shoot during the Raptors training camp practice, Monday, September 30, 2019 at Laval University in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

It is an operation of military-like precision, but carried out by a select few.

Access to the OVO Athletic Centre, the Toronto Raptors’ practice facility, is biometrically activated – those with clearance typically make their way into the 65,000-square-foot facility sandwiched between Lakeshore Boulevard and the Gardiner Expressway by putting their thumb on a pad, their fingerprint their passport.

It’s where the players, coaches, staff and executives gather to train, practise, watch video, conduct business and hang out – the second-floor lounge and patio overlooking Lake Ontario is one of the best views in the city.

In normal times there’s a fully staffed kitchen serving the healthiest foods to some of the world’s highest-paid athletes on demand. If they are in no rush to go home after practice, they can eat, play video games, watch movies or simply hang out amongst the extended Raptors family.

This week – and the weeks to come – will be different. The practice facility – the hub of Raptors life throughout the year – has been shuttered for two months following the suspension of the NBA season due to COVID-19. Forward Malcolm Miller and Raptors assistant coach Brittni Donaldson were the first members of the team in the building on Monday morning when it opened for the first time for limited use.

Their fingerprints were not necessary. Too risky.

“We’re all let into the building by the same security person,” Donaldson explained on a conference call Wednesday. “So we’re not all touching the finger [pad]. It’s just one person touching that to get [everyone] into the building.”

Already waiting was a member of the Raptors’ medical staff, who took their temperature – anyone above 99.1F [37.3C] is sent home. Then they had to fill out a survey of their symptoms.

Then – while wearing masks – they proceeded directly to the gym floor, as the players’ locker rooms, coaches’ offices, the weight room, treatment facilities and lounge all remain on lockdown. They weren’t allowed to be within 12 feet of one another.

In the gym, a member of the club’s equipment staff had laid out everything needed for the workout – each player uses the same two balls which are disinfected before and after. Miller could shed his mask at this point while Donaldson had to keep hers on and conduct the training session with gloves to further diminish any potential risk of infection.

“We wash our hands. Everything is already laid out for the players, all their gear, their balls,” says Donaldson. “We don’t have access to any other part of the building except for the court. We go in, we get our workout done and we leave. It’s that straightforward.”

Which begs the question: if these are the kind of precautions necessary for players to go through the most rudimentary of basketball workouts, what will be required for the NBA to get up and running and finish out the 259 games left in the regular season and complete the playoffs or any portion thereof?

That’s obviously well beyond the pay grade of Miller and Donaldson, who are only foot soldiers in the operation. For now, they can only appreciate a chance to emerge from their respective condos and get back to some version of basketball.

“It definitely felt strange, I missed it,” said Miller, who has been ‘eating’ the team-supplied weights in workouts at home in an effort to come out of the lockdown with a few more pounds of muscle on his slender frame. “It was a good experience just to have the basketball in your hands, feel the basketball and just get back to the game you love, even in a different format.”

Handling a ball was even strange for Donaldson, the former college guard in her first year as a member of the Raptors coaching staff. She was a little rusty after not working players out for eight weeks and then had the added complication of doing it with gloves and a mask on.

“I guess the mask makes it a little harder to breathe but luckily Malcolm doesn’t miss a whole lot so I’m not running down after rebounds much,” she said, while conceding she was a little stiff on the second day. “It adds a layer of a challenge but we adapt and we adjust and we still can get in some work. We’re there just to get a ball back in a players’ hand and get a rhythm back now and we’ll start building from there once the limitations subside over time.”

Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.

When that will be no one knows.

There have been some positive signs about the possibility of the season resuming. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that an informal poll of the NBA players association found ‘overwhelming’ support among the membership to find a way to finish the season. Similarly, an ESPN report said there was similar support and even optimism that a way forward could be found.

But getting from ‘here’ – individual workouts under stringent protocols in the most controlled environment possible to ‘there’ – playing games with full rosters, coaching staffs and basketball operations people and an army of television production people – is a perilous road.

What Donaldson and Miller are doing is to real basketball as playing chopsticks on a piano keyboard at home is to performing with a live orchestra.

It’s not even a close facsimile of a typical workout.

The Raptors’ player development department has been one of the team’s success stories in recent years as young and established players alike have expanded their games working with team staff under the leadership of long-time NBA assistant Jim Saan.

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Typically, the players will work out in groups of two, three or four with two or three coaches or more assisting to build out high-paced, game-like drills with multiple actions. It allows players to master skills at something close to game speed and has shown to translate successfully into live action.

The next step before teams could even practise would be competitive games of two-on-two and three-on-three.

But all of that is off limits for now. Instead, one player and one coach are allowed into OVO Centre at a time – fewer than the NBA guidelines, which allow for four players and four coaches at a time — in hour-long sessions with no overlap permitted between one workout group and the next.

Playing games – even without fans and in a ‘quarantine bubble’ at a venue like Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando as has been reportedly considered by the NBA – is infinitely more complicated.

How would Miller feel about that?

“I mean, there’s definitely a lot of moving pieces,” said Miller. “[And] there are definitely a lot of questions that have to be asked and have been asked, but I mean, I’d like to stay optimistic about it. I mean, we’re all basketball players and we love to play basketball as much as we can at this point, especially after being off.

“But it’s definitely a difficult situation we’re in. I know we don’t want to advance unless it’s a safe situation for everybody, and I’m talking to staff, coaches, players — so I do see it being a very difficult process but I hold optimism that we can hopefully get it done.”

In the meantime, returning to the OVO Athletic Centre in any format is progress. How long it will take NBA players to be game ready after a two-month layoff is anyone’s guess – sometime between two weeks and a month is the best-case scenario – and what the NBA season will look like at that point remains unknown.

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