MICHELE ROBERTS CAN’T remember when she first heard about the “bubble,” the idea of isolating NBA players in a hotel so the league could resume its season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But she remembers her reaction to it vividly.
“When that one was first floated,” said Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, “there was some consternation.”
A strict bubble where players are separated from their families, and only go to and from practices and games to a hotel, might seem attractive initially, Roberts said. But to enforce it, everyone inside would likely have to submit to some level of surveillance. And to a former public defender and trial lawyer, that was problematic from the jump.
“Are we going to arm guards around the hotel?” Roberts wondered. “That sounds like incarceration to me.”
The hypothetical also didn’t sit well with her constituents, the NBA’s players.
If a quarantined zone guaranteed players and coaches wouldn’t get COVID-19, they told her it would be worth the sacrifice of separating from family and friends for several months. But without surveillance, how could anyone guarantee the bubble was impenetrable?
What if a team staffer went to get a slice of pizza and became infected? What if an asymptomatic family member or significant other came to visit and spread the virus? If the honor code was too lax, but a police state was too draconian, what was the point of a bubble?
“So then the players were like, ‘Well, I don’t know that it’s worth it to be away from my family for that long,'” Roberts said. “We could do all that, and then what happens when one or two or 10 players test positive after that 28-day isolation? Do we shut it down?”
Roberts was ready to argue these points had the NBA or its owners pressed players to accept such terms. But it never came to that because NBA commissioner Adam Silver was hearing the same concerns from players as Roberts was, and relaying them to the owners he represents.
There was no use moving forward unless everyone was on board, Silver figured, which is why he and Roberts are hosting a joint call for all the players on Friday to address concerns and provide an open forum for questions.
As the league takes its first cautious steps back on Friday, when three teams — the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and Cleveland Cavaliers — reopen their practice facilities for voluntary, individual, socially distanced workouts, it’s unclear if the NBA is any closer to resuming its season than it was when it first shut down.
But one thing has changed — the growing acceptance that if and when the NBA does resume, it will be in a world where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is ever-present. If the NBA is to come back in some form, there will be, by definition, risk.
“This is a world with the virus,” Roberts said. “And we have to figure out a way to work, play and live in a world with the virus.
“The questions have now evolved from, ‘Are we going to play again?’ to, ‘If we play, what are the risks going to look like?'”
ON A RECENT CALL, Roberts and Silver both said they were glad neither had unilateral power to make decisions like this. Morally and ethically, it would be wrong, they said, for one person or one side to make a decision for everyone else involved.
Roberts and Silver have talked often since the league shut down. And they had these talks before the league shutdown too. The NBA had been preparing its teams for the possibility of COVID-19 coming to the United States for several months before Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive prior to a game at the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 11.
In conversations, Silver often mentions something his mentor, former commissioner David Stern, used to say: Never make a decision before you have to because 90 percent of them go away anyway.
That’s what happened when Gobert tested positive. The league immediately suspended operations. There was no debate. There wasn’t even a call with the NBA Board of Governors. The league just issued a news release, knowing that was the right thing to do.
The NBA flattened its curve by shutting down. But flattening the curve, as everyone involved has come to understand, doesn’t mean the risk goes to zero. It means that risk is spread out over time, and hopefully with that extra time, better solutions emerge.
What is your individual level of risk tolerance?
That fundamental question is personal to each player, coach and team staffer who will have to answer it, as the NBA tries to resume play.
Roberts doesn’t have a good answer for a scenario in which a player simply doesn’t feel safe returning.
“That is the million-dollar question,” she said. “I’ve got to confront that. It’s an issue employers everywhere are going to have to confront. Because I guarantee there’s going to be at least one player, if not many more than that, that are going to have genuine concerns about their safety.
“We have to figure out what the response is to that. It’s a tough one, and I don’t pretend that I have an answer to that one yet.”
But she and Silver will continue to address those questions during the long, slow process ahead. And nothing is officially off the table.
“People complain when I hear, I don’t know,'” Roberts said. “But there really are no easy answers to these questions. These are tough questions, and it’s going to be a tough road getting to wherever we end up.”
What Roberts and Silver hope is that the process remains guided by science, psychology and politics — and not economic pressure or impatience.
–Science, in the form of better data about how infectious COVID-19 is, best practices on preventing infections, better treatment options and what the true fatality rate is for the NBA population.
–Psychology, as each individual decides his or her level of risk tolerance and weighs it against competitive and economic pressures to return, which grow even stronger when potential interruptions to next season are factored in.
–Politics, as the league and its teams work closely with public health officials to ensure they aren’t perceived as getting preferential treatment on testing and the resumption of group activities, when the local population is still under different orders.
The NBA could buy or get as many rapid test kits as it needs to attempt to restart without fans, sources said. But politically, that’s a nonstarter right now.
“In order to do testing, you need the machines, you need the cartridges, you need the swabs, you need reagents, you need personal protective equipment, and a shortage of any one of these makes it difficult,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who has advised the NBA on the virus. “Which is why you’ve seen backlogs in so many parts of the country.”
If and when testing capacity improves to where that national issue is less problematic, the path back is a bit clearer.
According to sources, teams believe they would need local officials to allow gatherings of up to 50 people to practice again and gatherings of up to 200 to play games again, likely at home practice facilities or Disney World in Orlando, Florida. This could theoretically accommodate families and be seen as a semi-bubble, a compromise where players wouldn’t necessarily be subjected to such harsh social isolation or surveillance measures.
But until the national capacity for testing improves, sources said the NBA will be disciplined in maintaining social distancing as facilities open back up.
Nobody wants a repeat of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s criticism of the league for testing asymptomatic players who had contact with Gobert.
THE OTHER DAY, the hot and cold pools at the NBPA headquarters in New York City had to be drained. It was routine maintenance. Something a junior facilities employee could have handled.
But the office has been closed for two months, so having a junior staffer leave home to come in was no small ask.
Roberts had dozens of calls scheduled that day, as she does every day. But there was something alluring about driving into the office to do something tangibly productive that she couldn’t resist.
“There was no one in the building. And I didn’t want to make someone else come in to do it,” Roberts said. “After 15 minutes, I get a call from the drain people asking if I’m done. And I’m like, ‘Yeah. I’m on my way down.’
“But I’ve got to say, it was just glorious to be someplace. To go to the office.”
That’s what she hopes players get from having the chance to work out in their team facilities again.
“It’s not going to be a full-on practice,” she said. “It’s one guy at a time. It could be better, but they’ll have their facility. They’ll have the equipment that they’re accustomed to using. They’ll be able to breathe.”
And that’s something, especially for players who live in apartment complexes without full gym equipment or basketball hoops.
But individual, socially distanced workouts are a far cry from full-contact NBA basketball. And the mountain of safety and hygiene protocols teams have to follow just to allow players in to shoot in a mostly empty gym is daunting. For example:
Players will have to show up dressed for their workouts, because they won’t be allowed to use locker rooms. They won’t be allowed to shower afterward, either.
Each player will have his own basketball and be told to keep it for the duration of these individual workouts.
Only six player development coaches will be allowed in the facility, and they’ll have to stay 12 feet away and wear a mask and gloves.
There will be temperature checks for everyone and additional cardiac screenings when appropriate, but teams have been advised not to use test kits until they are more widely available to the general population.
All of these protocols have been developed in conjunction with public health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other infectious disease specialists, and discussed at length with owners and players.
For the foreseeable future, these workouts are voluntary. But it remains to be seen how many players will take advantage.
Beyond testing concerns, among the reasons teams are reluctant to open practice facilities for voluntary workouts: Many players are unconvinced the litany of steps is worth the trouble for an hour of shooting in an empty gymnasium.
“Players are saying, ‘I can do my stuff at high school gyms or whatever else I’ve been using right now — without having to go through all these protocols,'” one Western Conference general manager said. “And I can work out as long as I want there — not just an hour.”
Teams have long believed that younger players could use a touchstone back to organizations and facilities, but veterans are less convinced of the need to return now.
“I think a lot of guys feel it’s not safe when you have to jump through so many hoops to get a socially distanced workout in without being able to use the shower or the whirlpools or the sauna,” one Western Conference starter told ESPN.
“Some guys will stay out of market, and some guys will be in market and not go there,” the Western Conference player said. “And some will choose to use it.”
Some executives believe there would be a greater eagerness in these workouts if the league opened facilities with a step-by-step plan to proceed to a training camp. “If this was tied to a return to play, you’d see something of a different attitude,” one Western Conference GM said.
As one playoff team prepares to open its facility in the coming weeks, one of its top basketball executives cautions: “Once we have clearance, I’d be surprised if any of our players flew back into market for this.”
Flying back the team’s home city presents an extra challenge. Foreign-born players such as the Dallas Mavericks‘ Luka Doncic, who flew home on a private jet to Slovenia after the NBA shutdown, according to sources, will have to fly back to the United States and then quarantine. Even players who flew out of state during the shutdown will have to make their way back and then quarantine.
Said one high-profile agent, who represents several players in this predicament: “It took two to three weeks for everything to unwind when we shut down. It’ll take at least that long for guys to get back to town. And they’re not going to start flying back until they hear the league is starting up again.”
LAST YEAR AT THIS TIME, Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers was in the Western Conference playoffs, on his way to a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance.
This year he has been sheltering at his home in San Francisco with his wife and three young daughters since the season was suspended.
“That feels like four years ago,” Myers said of the 2019 playoffs. “I mean, forever.”
Before the season was suspended, Myers and Warriors team president Rick Welts were preparing to play the first NBA game with no fans at the Chase Center on March 12, against the Brooklyn Nets. The outbreak in San Francisco had reached levels where public health officials had prohibited all gatherings of more than 250 people.
Myers and Welts found themselves hurriedly complying with the order and discussing what it would mean with players.
“That seems like a dream,” Myers said. “I’m sitting in front of players talking about, ‘Do you want music? Do you want the scoreboard?'”
Those conversations feel surreal now. The league doesn’t have a path back to practice again, let alone play games.
“In some sense, that is going to be the future,” Myers said. “So those conversations will probably happen again.
“But health is at the forefront right now, as it should be. We’ll get back to competing soon. That’s what we do, that’s what makes the job what it is — the ability to compete. But right now, we’re not competing against the virus.”
“I mean, nobody’s winning that one,” he said, “so we’re just going to wait until we’re ready to go.”
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Tim MacMahon, Tim Bontemps, Malika Andrews and Brian Windhorst contributed to this report.