As sporting leagues around the world grapple with how to respond to the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese Basketball Association has told American players to plan to return as early as this weekend and prepare for the league to resume in early April. But it’s not clear if the players will comply.
Approximately 40 Americans — including former NBA players Jeremy Lin, Lance Stephenson, Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson — are under contract with the 20 teams that make up the Chinese Basketball Association. Most foreign players were sent home over the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, with instructions to prepare to return in mid- to late February.
As positive signs have emerged in China in recent weeks regarding containment of the virus, CBA team officials are discussing several formats for how to resume play, sources told ESPN, including hosting all 20 teams in one or two cities and playing a truncated regular season and playoff schedule, without fans.
American players have been informed that they will be required to spend 14 days in quarantine upon return to China, sources told ESPN, although details remain sparse regarding where and how that process would be conducted.
A memo dispersed to CBA teams by the league, a translated copy of which was acquired by ESPN, reads as follows:
“To all CBA clubs,
“In January 2020, the new coronavirus broke out in many places across the country. According to the requirements of national epidemic prevention and control, we postponed the subsequent games of the 2019-2020 CBA season scheduled to be held on February 1. At present, the situation of epidemic prevention and control in CBA cities is basically stable. In order to better respond to the national requirements on precise prevention and control, solid and orderly promotion of return to work and production, shoulder the mission and task of sports confidence, warm people’s hearts and gather people’s hearts, according to the relevant requirements of China Basketball Association on the restart of the league, the rest of the games of the 2019-2020 CBA season will restart from the beginning of April.
“All clubs and teams are requested to prepare for the restart of CBA League as early as April 2. At the same time, all teams should comply with the relevant requirements of the national and local epidemic prevention and control departments, continue to strengthen the epidemic prevention and control work, do a good job in making detailed and solid security measures such as epidemic prevention and control, and ensure the health and safety of club and team members. Details of the restart will be notified separately.”
Conversations with players and representatives for around half of the Americans in the league revealed a significant amount of trepidation for how to proceed, with many players flatly stating at the moment that they do not plan on getting on a plane to China anytime in the near future due to safety concerns, at least not without significantly more information in hand.
The U.S. Department of State issued a travel advisory on Feb. 2 advising U.S. citizens not to travel to China after the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency. Some, but not all airlines have suspended service to mainland China. Players ESPN spoke with have expressed concerns about whether they will be allowed to return to the U.S. after the conclusion of the league, and whether they will be forced to undergo another process of being quarantined upon arrival.
The viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 120,000 people in over 100 countries, and more than 4,000 deaths worldwide have been attributed to the virus. The World Health Organization has named the illness COVID-19, referring to its origin late last year and the coronavirus that causes it. It was officially declared a pandemic on March 11.
CHICAGO — Jim Boylen’s United Center entrance usually begins with a fist bump. Or a “pound,” as he calls it, his knuckles to a security guard’s, on his way into work. On Tuesday, however, it didn’t.
On Tuesday, the first day of basketball in a COVID-19-fearing NBA, it instead began with a “half-elbow.” The changes continued, around two hours before tip, halfway around the arena rather than outside the Chicago Bulls’ locker room, the NBA’s new media restrictions altering his routine. Boylen sat in the dimly lit Concert Club, a dining area that had been turned into an auxiliary news conference room. He took one coronavirus-related question, then a second. Then a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth, and a seventh. Then, finally, one about basketball.
His new starting point guard, Coby White, and injured star Zach LaVine were asked about the virus as well. They’ve had team meetings about it. They’ve talked among themselves about it. They watch the news. And some of the things they see, Boylen admitted, are “a little bit frightening.” Or “a little overpowering.”
And then there are the constant reminders. The warnings, in jest, to not touch anything. The team employees wiping down food tables, and the digital PSAs outlining best practices. Wash and scrub with soap. For 20 seconds. And don’t touch your face.
All of which explains why Chicago’s opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, had a “logjam in the bathroom at the sink” before breakfast on Tuesday, newly extended head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “You see guys with their own sanitizer,” he added. As the players trotted on and off the floor Tuesday night, none reached up to fans with open palms, only with closed fists. In the hallways, they wavered between proper bro hugs and more cautious alternatives.
But then they took the court for the 108-103 Bulls win. The virus slid back into the depths of their minds. Up above, fans filtered in, largely unconcerned. They used the same water fountains they always do. Pulled the same ketchup levers. Exchanged the same dollar bills with beer vendors. Shared the same chicken finger baskets. Socialized at the same concessions tables. Listened to the same in-game music, and enjoyed the same arena entertainment, and watched the same basketball.
The NBA’s public-facing product on Tuesday night emerged in stark contrast to the concern unfolding around it. The question is, “Why?” And whether that’s acceptable. And how long semi-normalcy will last.
Media access was the first thing to go. As of Wednesday morning, it remains the only thing. Which is telling.
“I found it quite curious,” California governor Gavin Newsom said Tuesday, “that the four major organizations – NHL, soccer, Major League Baseball and the NBA – put out guidelines to protect their athletes but not their fans.”
Experts, to be sure, are largely in agreement about the need for social distancing. “We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top public health official, said Wednesday. “If that means not having any people in the audience when the NBA plays, so be it.”
But the NBA is a billion-dollar corporation. Billion-dollar corporations, for the most part, do not exist to serve a greater good. They serve themselves. They provide products or private services or entertainment, but are beholden to their bottom lines. The NBA is no different, which explains why it moved quickly to shelter its highest-paid employees, the reasons fans fill seats, but has moved lethargically – or negligently – to protect those fans. It often claims to care about them. About you. What it really cares about are your dollars.
And what became clear Tuesday night, both in conversations with fans and observation, is that they are perfectly willing to continue to spend those dollars if the NBA allows them to. Barring fans would cost teams millions. They’re not inclined to voluntarily forfeit cash. Their actions, viewed alongside their media policy, seem contradictory. The contradiction also makes complete sense.
The vexing question, then, is whether the NBA has a responsibility to the public well-being that transcends its private financial interests. Its games may contribute to the spread of the virus, and eventually even to death – even if the at-risk individual who suffers is two or three degrees removed from the 25-year-old fan who contracts the virus at a game. Does the NBA have a responsibility to put that at-risk individual above the thousands of unconcerned, low-risk 20-somethings who’ll pay to enjoy weeknight basketball?
Back inside that dimly lit auxiliary media room, we waited. The Bulls had beaten the Cavaliers. At 9:43 p.m., Bickerstaff had wrapped up his postgame news conference. At 10, with the locker room completely off limits, still, we waited for our first interview with a Cavs player. We eventually got two. Makeshift accommodations were sufficient. Public relations staffs were helpful. Access, however, was and will be fundamentally altered.
The game, however, had not been. There were some empty seats, as there would be for any March game between directionless lottery teams. But 17,837 attended. They cheered. They chatted. They ignored intangible risk. They enjoyed the show.
What will stop them are precautionary measures like the one Santa Clara Country announced on Monday, when it outlawed public gatherings of more than 1,000 people for a month. Like the ones DeWine, the Ohio governor, is asking for — ones that would force the Cavs, the same Cavs who played in front of 17,837 on Tuesday night, to play in front of nobody.
With the media room all but cleared out, I mentioned the possibility of spectator-less games to Kevin Love. Before I could ask a question, he interjected.
“It’s coming,” Love said. “It’s coming.”
It has forced players, coaches, people at all levels of the NBA to consider what hoops without hoop heads would be. What it would look like. What it would sound like. What it would feel like.
“A lot of what we do is based on the emotion and the energy that the fans bring,” Bickerstaff said. “There’s moments in games where you’re down, and you’re at home, and your crowd gives you that boost, gives you that energy, and you start to feed off that. … But now figuring out, how do you do that looking around at an empty stadium? It’ll be tough. It’ll be awkward at the beginning.”
Most of all, it’ll be different. The Cavs and Bulls players who spoke Tuesday night racked their brains for a precedent. The closest White could come to a similar experience was pickup runs at the Y.
“I couldn’t even fathom or conceptualize what that would even feel like,” Love said. “Obviously, I’ve been in empty arenas going through five-on-five scrimmages [in practice]. But even in college, we used to put the faux crowd noise on, and it’d be super loud.”
Without the artificial noise, he concluded, “I can’t even put into words what that would be like.”
San Francisco is banning gatherings of more than 1,000 people for at least two weeks because of the coronavirus, a decree that will impact Golden State Warriors home games.
Mayor London N. Breed made the announcement Wednesday morning.
“We know that this order is disruptive, but it is an important step to support public health,” Breed said in a statement. “We’re following the recommendations of public health officials to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
“We know cancelling these events is a challenge for everyone, and we’ve been talking with venues and event organizers about the need to protect public health. Today I spoke with the Warriors to discuss the steps we’re taking to cancel large events, and they are in support of our efforts.”
The order will impact at least two Warriors home games. The Warriors are scheduled to host the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday and the Atlanta Hawks on March 25.
The Warriors later announced that they will play Thursday’s game without fans.
The game will be the first major American sporting event to be played without fans since the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States.
The ban doesn’t extend into baseball’s regular season with the San Francisco Giants scheduled to host their first home game on April 3. The Giants noted that they are canceling a March 24 exhibition game against the Oakland A’s.
“We will not play our upcoming March 24th exhibition game against the Oakland A’s at Oracle Park in San Francisco,” the statement reads. “We have no other large public gatherings scheduled at Oracle Park during this time period. We are in the process of working with Major League Baseball and the A’s to finalize alternative arrangements.”
The ban goes into effect immediately and can be reauthorized after the initial two-week time frame by the city’s health officer Dr. Grant Colfax, according to the statement.
“A pandemic just means that there are many cases of infectious diseases in multiple parts of the world and that it constitutes something that’s above the baseline rate that you’d expect,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, told Yahoo Lifestyle. “It doesn’t say anything about severity.”
Colfax wrote in the San Francisco statement that the step to prohibit large crowds is an effort to improve the odds of reducing the spread of the virus.
“For the general public, reducing the opportunity for exposure to the virus is the top priority, and by cancelling events, we are improving the odds,” Colfax wrote. “We encourage all San Franciscans to cut back on the time you spend in groups and wash your hands consistently.”
The Cavaliers have responded relatively well under Bickerstaff’s leadership, going 5-5 in the 10 games he’s coached. The team started 14-40 before Bickerstaff took over.
Bickerstaff is an NBA coaching veteran, having worked as an assistant or associate head coach in the league since 2004 with the Charlotte Bobcats, Minnesota Timberwolves, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies before arriving in Cleveland in 2019.