NBA’s fantasy bubble has burst and Raptors face real-world problems

Toronto Raptors general manager Bobby Webster speaks following the Raptors positive COVID-19 cases.

Who, what, when, where, how?

Who knows?

Welcome to the first NBA season – and please, please, please let it be the last being played in the midst of a pandemic.

We’re two days into training camp for most teams and the only thing we know for sure so far is that end of the 2019-20 season, played in a tightly controlled, COVID-free quarantine bubble on campus at Walt Disney World Resort, was indeed a fantasy.

In the bubble, there was daily testing and no one could come in or out other than the resort employees, and their interaction with the players was severely limited, to the point where cleaning staff would turn and run the other way if they accidently ended up in a hallway with someone from the NBA contingent.

Even if players wanted to, they couldn’t break protocol – not without being found out, at least.

The virus never got in and the games went off without a hitch.

But this is the real world now, and in short order we’ve got real-world problems. On Monday the Toronto Raptors announced Monday three members of their organization had tested positive for COVID-19 during the course of the league-mandated testing period prior to training camp. The three infected individuals have been self-isolating away from the rest of the 60 or so members of the Raptors’ staff and players that are holed up in their downtown Tampa Bay hotel, but after that, we don’t know much and likely won’t.

“We’re not going to get into the who, what, when, how, why of the three members, but we’re here to take any questions,” was how Raptors general manager Bobby Webster kicked off an online press conference.

He wasn’t there to answer many of them, because there wasn’t much he could really say. He’s flying by the seat of his pants as much as anyone else.

The Raptors’ case isn’t isolated. The NBA announced that during testing from Nov. 24 to Nov. 30 as players returned to their local markets to prepare for training camp, 48 out of 546 players tested were positive for the virus, or about 8.8 per cent.

To put that into perspective, if the NBA was one of the 50 U.S. states, that rate would rank it 36th, nestled between Florida and West Virginia, which isn’t all that comforting given that the country as a whole is in the midst of second wave that has already surpassed by almost any measure the peak of the first in March and April. That was the one that prompted the league to shut down for four months in the first place and only resume play in an antiseptic bubble.

But now here they are trying to play through it.

By that crude math the Raptors have done pretty well to have only three positive tests, which translates into about a five per cent positivity rate, which would make them the sixth-best state, just behind New York and ahead of Massachusetts.

But even three cases aren’t nothing and the virus has shown there is likely plenty more where those came from. Figuring out how to navigate will be – it is eminently clear – an ongoing issue that won’t go away until vaccines are widely available which is, who knows when?

Until then, the league will be forced to figure things out on the trot, with each situation just a little different. The Portland Trail Blazers had three positive tests on Sunday. And they closed their practice facility for a deep clean out of – you guessed it – “an abundance of caution.”

The Raptors had three positive tests and they haven’t missed a beat, with the second day of training camp moving along without interruption.

“We had full training camp (Monday),” said Webster. “We’re comfortable that the three cases were isolated. … (After) contact tracing went through, there’s been no further positive tests. So we’re confident that we can continue with basketball.”

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said Sunday the 20 players on the Raptors training camp roster were available for the team’s first full practice, although Webster wouldn’t confirm that and provided no insight about when the individuals tested positive.

Beyond that, details were sparse and will likely remain so given privacy laws.

Once the positive test results are received the next steps come from the thick binder of protocols the NBA put in place for the bubble and has been revising and adding to ever since. The first step is isolating those who test positive and then the contact tracing begins. Whether those who test positive are asymptomatic or not they are looking at a two-week wait before they can rejoin the team.

Given how quickly the games will come once the season begins – each team will be trying to get through a 72-game schedule in about 150 days – keeping positive tests to a minimum will be paramount. The league has instated rules for how players and staff interact on the road, limiting how and where they can eat and who they can have in their hotel rooms, with similar restrictions in their home markets. Penalties for violations range from warnings to fines to suspensions for players and the loss of draft picks and forfeiting of games for teams that don’t comply.

But people are people, and the season will likely hinge on how seriously a group of largely 20-something men behave. On one hand, you have James Harden showing up late for Houston Rockets camp because of what seems like a masks-optional birthday party and on the other, you have Karl Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves star who lost his mother and six other family members to the pandemic.

“It’s an enormous challenge, right?” said Webster. “It’s a logistical challenge it’s a health challenge, it’s a human challenge that we’re all going through. It’s constantly on our mind at the same time we’re trying to prepare for an NBA season, as I’m sure most of us are seeing around the sports landscape, this was bound to happen so we just wanted to make sure we had, you know, everything kind of tied up and continuing to review, continuing to educate, continuing to have awareness with our players, coaches and staff, almost on a daily basis.”

Prior to Monday’s news the Raptors had been largely untouched by the novel coronavirus. In Toronto, they were able to start individual workouts at the OVO Centre in May as the city inched its way out of lockdown, and before going Disney, the team was able to set up their own mini bubble in Naples, Fla., for nearly three weeks so they could gather, train and test before heading into the bubble virus-free, as the NBA required.

The Raptors, Webster says, are pretty good at this.

“I think the nature of the protocols was to essentially create little bubbles around each team,” he said. “So basically to get in the bubble or around a team you need to follow a bunch of protocols (and) continually test negative. So we’re all in the habits of waking up in the morning, going down and getting tested, wearing your mask, grabbing your food to go, eating in your room, jumping on a bus, being socially distanced, coming to practice is obviously the one where we’re all together, where the players are not wearing masks …I think it’s become pretty normal and routine for us now.”

It’s a system that has worked pretty well, but isn’t perfect, and likely can’t be.

This is 2020-21, and we’re not at Disney any longer.


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