Fred VanVleet didn’t have to wait long to find out what COVID-19 was all about — at least firsthand.
The Toronto Raptors point tested positive for the virus on the weekend of Feb. 27-28 and was immediately booked into a hotel room in downtown Tampa, isolating himself from his wife and children as required.
And not long after the symptoms hit.
“I think the weirdest thing is everybody I talked to has a different experience, but for me, I can just speak for myself. [I] tested positive [and] had the symptoms pretty soon after that: back sore, body aches — just feel like I played three nights in a row — sore, headache, my eyes were hurting, I didn’t have the shortness of breath or anything like that, [but] I had a fever for a day-and-a-half, two days, but definitely nothing like anything I’ve ever had.
“I could feel that it was something different, I could feel the sickness, I could just feel it in me, I could feel it in my bones, in my muscles, in my blood, it just was something that was taking over my body for a short period of time and a lot of rest, a lot of Tylenol, a lot of waiting (for) it, once it passed… I felt perfectly fine again. Obviously, I was a little fatigued and the body was a little beat up just from the sickness passing through, but my symptoms didn’t last that long, but I probably would say I had two bad days, two really bad days and after that I was ok.”
But what is okay?
VanVleet and the Toronto Raptors — having lost seven of their last eight games and five straight as they try to stay in the Eastern Conference playoff picture — are about to find out. It’s been 20 days since the virus first surfaced amongst the team, eventually requiring six coaches and five players to go into extended quarantine periods. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse — who was the first member of the organization to miss time when he was held out from coaching the Raptors’ win over the Houston Rockets on Feb. 26 (Pascal Siakam was also held out for what was at that point an inconclusive test) — was back at work on March 9 but it’s still not clear when the team will be whole again.
Among the five players, VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw were cleared to participate in practice in Detroit Tuesday night in advance of Toronto’s date with the lowly Pistons on Wednesday. OG Anunoby travelled with the team but was only able to participate in an individual workout. He’s been ruled out against the Pistons but could be eligible to return for Friday’s game against Utah. The other four will need to pass one more round of testing on Wednesday to determine if they’re able to play against Detroit.
The Raptors can only hope. The prospect of having some reinforcements — the five missing players represent three starters and two others who project to be part of the rotation — made for an uptick in the mood around a team that has been struggling uphill all season. They seemed to be finding firmer footing, fighting back over .500 after a 2-8 start before their recent slide saw them fall to 11th place with a 17-22 record, their streak of seven straight playoff appearances under threat for the first time.
“Guys [were] just showing up at the plane, mini-celebrations for each new guy that comes back, either coach or player,” said Nurse. “Just lotta ‘good to see you, man’ going on there and then obviously on the court… actually almost had the whole roster out there tonight. I was running some five-on-0 and I had to run three teams tonight, believe it or not. Big step forward there.”
But even if there’s room for optimism, how it will translate on the floor remains unknown, and not just because it’s not clear who will be available to play and when, or how effective they will be when they do step on the floor after an extended absence.
VanVleet is the only player or staff member to confirm that he did have the virus although given how long everyone has been out of action it’s reasonable to assume the others did too, given the NBA only requires a seven-day self-isolation period for individuals deemed to have been in close contact with someone with a confirmed case.
To hear VanVleet tell it, it’s hard to imagine those affected will be able to be up and running and mid-season speed right away.
“Definitely an experience that I won’t forget,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I’m here, I’m alive, I’m breathing. I know there are a lot of people that didn’t make it through COVID. My thoughts and heart are with the families and people that have been affected by this thing that weren’t as fortunate as I was, as I am. I’m thoughtful with that. I’m just happy to be back with the team right now.
“[But] it’s going to be a process. It’s gonna be a process, for sure. It’s gonna take time. I’m just taking baby steps. I’m just glad to be around the group. I just wanted to get my energy and confidence and swag around the group. I know it’s been a rough stretch for everybody, not just the guys that were locked up. The rest of the guys that were trying to put the pieces together, I feel for them. I just want to get back out there, hopefully sooner rather than later, and start putting the pieces back together.”
The Raptors have their work cut out for them. The 10-29 Pistons might be considered a gimme, but Detroit blew out the shorthanded Raptors before the all-star break and then Toronto hosts league-leading Utah on Friday.
But having the virus in their midst was an eye-opening experience, even if the threat of COVID-19 has defined the Raptors’ professional and personal existence for more than a year, requiring them to undergo multiple quarantine periods; daily testing; spend nearly three months isolated from friends and family in the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort to finish last season and then relocate to Tampa for the 2020-21 season.
Any notions that the virus penetrating the ‘moving bubble’ the Raptors have been working under all season is someone’s ‘fault’ is nonsense, says VanVleet, who was asked about a report that the Raptors outbreak was because the coaching staff didn’t follow proper masking protocols.
“It’s such a heavy illness and how it’s affected our world in the last 12 months, that there comes a blame (with it) like it’s anybody’s fault. But once you get it, you understand: Like, I don’t know where I got it from,” said VanVleet. “I don’t know who gave it to me or where it came from or what the case is, and the doctors don’t know, and the people who are paid a lot of money to figure this out don’t know.
“People sitting at home or trying to figure it out from far, putting unrealistic thoughts and blame on people, that was a little bit disappointing. I felt a little bit bad for the coaches that that was put on them. I felt for the players. It’s a tricky thing because the first thing you think of is, ‘Well, how did you get it?’ Well, I don’t know, I’ve been following every rule since the rules came out. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s unfortunate. I’m just happy that all of us that have made it out, and hopefully we all continue to stay healthy.”
It’s the most anyone can expect at the moment. The Raptors can only hope that they get back to full strength soon and that those that have been out for an extended period don’t take too long to find their legs again.
VanVleet has been in the midst of a career year — averaging a career-high 20.1 points along with 6.6 assists a game while getting justifiable notice an as all-league defender — but he’s not sure what happens next; he’s just happy to be here.
“I caught myself walking into the gym just smiling, smiling like I forgot how much I love this s—,” said VanVleet. “Like, I really love the game, I really love basketball, I really love being in the gym, I don’t always love everything that comes with it, you know what I’m saying, but I really love the game and it’s just a blessing being back.
“And having that taken away from me for that period of time where you just go cold turkey, nothing, you’re just in the room by yourself, you don’t get to practice, you don’t get to shoot on your own, I couldn’t do a push-up, and to be back here, I’ve been giving out more hugs in the last 24 hours than I ever have in my life so I’m happy to be back to say the least.”