It’s “All systems go” as teams started to arrive for the NBA Season Restart in Orlando, Florida last July 7. Twenty two teams were given the nod to proceed to a campus-style environment now fondly nicknamed the ‘Bubble’, where a germ-free environment fit for the sci-fi movies has been set up. Protocols have been raised – including regular testing, strict screening and quarantining, etc – to assure players, officials, support staff and fans alike that no invisible enemy is allowed to infiltrate the sterile site.
Still, concerns were raised when a number of players including all-stars Russell Westbrook and Nikola Jokic tested positive for the virus during initial testing prior to their entry into the ‘Bubble’. Both will be able to rejoin their teams if they pass the next tests they take after a mandatory treatment procedure. I have lost count of how many players have been identified to be virus-positive, but the NBA, it seems, still views the numbers as manageable.
Indeed, from the moment the Restart was announced, there has been a guarded optimism and hope for the basketball world to find true closure. As players and officials converge at our new cage mecca, the situation remains fragile. Even as the league has formulated a seemingly solid plan, the virus has shown no signs of slowing down. Florida’s COVID-19 cases, for that matter, continue to rise at a very alarming rate.
Inside the Bubble, teams started conducting team scrimmages last July 9. By July 30, the season is expected to resume, with participating teams jockeying for better position with only 8 seeding games in an abbreviated format. The fast-and-furious season finishes up on August 14. Two days (Aug 15-16) were allocated for win-or-leave ‘Play-in’ mini-tourneys for the 8th spot, should the 8th and 9th teams in each conference be separated by 4 games or less. The playoffs starts on Aug 17, with the Conference Finals set for Sept 15. Finally, the NBA Finals will start on Sept 30, and should be done by Oct 13.
Hopefully, by that time, the basketball world will be singing praises to the new champion. Bend a knee and cry out loud: “All hail, the new king of the cage kingdom!”
That is, if no significant untoward incident occurs during that period.
Health and safety concerns over this merciless pandemic, together with the festering social justice issue, have raised doubts over the NBA’s plans to push this plan forward. Questions over how foolproof the quarantine protocols are; and more so, on how serious the players, officials and other support elements will take them, have been raised.
What happens if players are caught violating the Bubble’s health and safety protocols? What happens if a player is tested positive in the middle of the playoffs? And it’s not just the players we should be concerned about. What about the support staff? Who will police the ranks of the thousands of people who will maintain the games, the hotels, the supply lines, and the entire area? What happens if top stars contract the virus? What magic number of cases will determine whether this bold exercise continues or not? But even more important, with all the distractions going on around us, is this activity worth pursuing for the NBA? Is this about the crown, or is it all about the money? Is it worth risking the health of the players?
For now, the NBA is determined to forge ahead. I believe there wil be even more NBA players and game support staff who will test positive for the coronavirus in the days to come. But many of those reported to have tested positive have since been cleared as well, including Rudy Gobert (the first player to have recorded positive for the virus), Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Durant (who remains in the injured list), Marcus Smart and many others.
Thus, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) will play a big role in the success of this endeavor. It must get all players to buy-in to the higher purpose of the games, and the need for all players to be professionals and strictly adhere to the health protocols.
The season closure is needed not just to be able to crown a new king. Neither is it simply to create more accolades for the present crop of cage heroes like Lebron or Giannis or Kawhi or Luka. Now more than ever, the games are needed to provide an escape from the drudgeries of our imperfect world. It will serve to keep away people from the streets, so that hopefully they will not contract the dreaded virus. It will provide a sense of normalcy, even as we accept the inevitability of changing norms. And it will help to serve as a vehicle for the needed social change as well, with ‘Black Lives Matter’ splashed across the screens for everyone to see, and hopefully imbibe.
This NBA season needs to crown a winner. It has to find its closure. But more than just for the sheer entertainment value of it, players – as well as fans – must realize this is now bigger than basketball. This is about transforming. About living. Even about mankind’s survival in this planet. Under the new norm. And these players can play a big part as role models for health and fitness, as exemplars of professionalism and discipline, as vanguards to social reform, and as pioneers to the incoming new norm society.
Let’s root for the NBA. There is a noble purpose that goes with the search for a champion in the NBA this year.
Here’s a Walt Disney presentation of the NBA Restart. Enjoy!
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of Clutch Points. Other photos courtesy of Mavericks Moneyball, Msn.com, Bungalower, Silver Screen and Roll, NBA.com, Dallas Mavericks, Celtics Blog, Sports News Instant, Bill Baptist/Getty Images, Orange County News, NBA-NBC Sports, The Sports Rush, ESPN.com, The Republic, SLCDunk.com, and USA Today.