Inside the disagreements and compromises that brought the NBA back

AS THE NBA’S plans to restart its season at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, were coming into focus last week, Chris Paul and Bob Iger went for a walk.

Paul, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, and Iger, the executive chairman of the Walt Disney Company, the parent company of ESPN and owner of the complex that will house the 22 teams restarting the 2019-20 season, are close friends who have known each other for years.

“​Chris and I probably text one another about seven times a week, and talk four times a week,” Iger said. “I consider him a very good friend.”

So it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Paul to consult Iger before making big decisions — in this case, decisions that will affect the health, safety and financial futures of the 450 NBA players he represents.

“When Chris was traded [to the LA Clippers in 2011] — as Chris tends to do, he’s very curious — he asked people, ‘Who should I meet?'” Iger said. “I don’t remember who put us together, but he reached out looking for business advice and mentorship, and it just so happened I was not only a huge basketball fan, but a Clipper fan, and we bonded.

“He gave me this ‘I’m looking for a mentor’ speech. And I said, ‘Get in line. There are a lot of people. If you’re interested in taking it seriously, we’ll give it a shot, but it takes two to tango. I’m not going to just waste my time.’

“But it became very clear, very quickly that he was genuine. I gave him things to read, we talked a lot, and we ended up creating a nice relationship.”

So last week, as Paul wrestled with details of the NBA’s plans — which were ratified in a vote of the board of governors Thursday afternoon, contingent on an agreement with The Walt Disney Company to use Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida, as a single site for a campus for all games, practices and housing for the remainder of the season — he and Iger decided to go on a socially distant walk near Paul’s house in Encino, California.

It was a glorious mid-spring day in Los Angeles, but this was no easy stroll.

“Every time we went up and down one hill, he would find another hill to climb,” Iger joked. “I work out every day. But I’m 69 with a prosthetic knee, and he’s a professional athlete.”

So the walk, like the journey through months of uncertainty after the league shut down March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic, was challenging.

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But the NBA has benefited from strong, long-standing relationships among Paul, Iger, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts. And in recent interviews with ESPN, each of them noted how that trust and rapport helped push the process forward, up hills where it could have gotten stuck.

“It’s just sort of coincidental,” Iger said. “I’ve got this relationship with Chris, I have this relationship with Adam, and I happen to have run the Walt Disney Company for a while. So it all kind of comes together in trying to figure out how we get the NBA back.”

The NBA community, like the world at large, has lost friends and family to the virus. It has wrestled with economic hardship, job losses and mental health issues. It has gone from trying to escape risk to understanding how to live with it.

“I think we started with the players not even thinking for a minute that the season was not going to resume,” Roberts said. “It’s really been an evolution of emotional reactions from one extreme to another. Complete disbelief, complete ignorance and not taking it seriously, like all of us. To gradually coming to a point where, ‘OK, what are my real options here?’

“They completely get the science, and they completely get the risks. But they’re doing something that every American is ultimately going to have to do and say, ‘How do I live in this world with this virus that is not going to be eliminated by a vaccine on Thursday?'”

PAUL WAS ON the court when the NBA suspended the season indefinitely on March 11, when the Utah Jazz‘s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 moments before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Roberts was in an Uber on her way home from a meeting with Silver and several others from the league office when she got the call from Paul, warning her of the situation unfolding in Oklahoma City.

“We had just been talking about what we would do when one of our players tests positive?” Roberts said. “And we’d said that we’ll start by playing without fans.”

Looking back, there are several things Roberts still can’t believe.

“I mean, I was still going to work on the subway until the city shut it down,” Roberts said. “The subway!”

The idea that playing games without fans would mitigate risk as the pandemic spread also seems laughable now. But that’s how quickly things changed.

For months, Silver had been consulting with public health officials and the commissioners of other sports leagues about the growing risk of the coronavirus. Each league seemed to be watching each other closely, knowing that if one suspended operations it would put pressure on everyone else to follow.

Government officials were monitoring each new case of COVID-19, which, despite extremely limited testing at the time, was showing clear evidence of community spread in several areas across the country.

At the board of governors meeting that week, Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob noted that it wasn’t a question of if an NBA player would test positive, but when.

As soon as Gobert did, Silver shut down the league. There was no call with the board of governors, no discussion with the players or their union. Silver just did it, knowing how serious the risk had become.

“People say that was a courageous decision or whatever, ” Silver said on a conference call with players last month. “I’m not proud of that. I’m not proud of shutting down.

“I will be proud of finding a path that was safe and as risk-free as possible for us to play. I think that would be much more of an accomplishment than shutting down the league.”

Silver has had weekly calls with executive committee members Paul, Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry and Dallas Mavericks center Dwight Powell; another weekly call with the league’s general managers and team presidents, and biweekly calls with the 30 owners.

In between there are Zoom, FaceTime, Webex and Google Meetup calls with business leaders, public health officials, President Donald Trump, and executives from Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Hockey League.

Silver is also part of the joint task force between the players’ union and league that is collectively bargaining the plans to restart as well as the financial issues and health and safety protocols that will govern it.

Iger has been among his confidants — they have known each other since the mid-1990s, when Silver was the head of NBA Entertainment and Iger met his future wife, Willow Bay, the anchor of “Inside Stuff” — not only because of the business relationship between the league and Disney, but because as the leaders of multinational companies with offices and employees in China, they were aware of how serious the virus was in mid-January, just as the United States was confirming its first case.

Iger made the decision to close Shanghai Disney on Jan. 25, around the same time Silver was managing over 200 employees in China during its quarantine.

“In the early weeks of this, I spent a significant amount of my time speaking with experts on testing, on all different kinds of protocol, trying to learn as much as I can,” Iger said. “And almost everyone that I spoke with would say to me, “Oh, I just talked to Adam Silver.’

“So, finally I called Adam and said, ‘Why don’t we compare notes?'”

THIS TYPE OF relationship-building has been a hallmark of Silver’s tenure as commissioner. That was evident early on, when he consulted closely with Paul and other star players on how to handle the racist remarks made by former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, less than 90 days after he succeeded David Stern in 2014.

Over the years, Silver has built close relationships with Paul and Roberts, the latter of whom succeeded Billy Hunter as executive director of the union in the summer of 2014. The new regime was vastly different than the often-contentious relationship between Stern and Hunter.

In Silver’s NBA, the players are largely treated as business partners, with Paul and Roberts acting as their lead negotiators. That works, observers say, because Paul and Roberts spend so much time canvassing players and building consensus among their ranks.

“I could literally talk about [restart plans] all day with a passion and excitement of knowing that, when a conversation does happen with the league or with Adam, there’s no pressure of saying like, ‘This is what I want to do,'” Paul told ESPN’s Royce Young. “Because you know this is what we have decided.”

That trust among players is why the union plans to have only a conference call with team representatives — rather than a formal vote of the full membership — to approve the league’s 22-team plan to restart the season in Orlando.

“If we thought we needed a vote, we would,” Roberts said. “But our preferred method is talking to people or just having them talk to us.”

As such, Roberts spent the past two weeks meeting with players on all 30 teams in virtual calls, gathering feedback on plans and what’s important to players.

“I’ve never viewed it as you [the league] let me know what you want to do and we [the union] will decide,” Roberts said. “We are actively engaged in conversation with the league about this, ‘Let’s talk about what you think is important. Let’s talk about what we think is important and see if we can come together with some protocols.'”

To build trust between players and the league, Silver joined a conference call with the full union membership in May. For nearly an hour, he answered players’ questions about the challenges of resuming the season, future economic impact on the league and player salaries, the risks of playing at home practice facilities versus a single-site campus. He told them that they were part of any decisions that were made, same as the owners he represented.

“I just really want to stress that notion about collectivity,” Silver told the players. “Anything we’re doing is modifying the collective bargaining agreement. So both legally and in terms of our partnership, we’re not going to make any decisions that aren’t joint.”

That partnership will be immediately tested again, as the union has expressed concern surrounding the timing and finances for the 2020-21 NBA season.

NOT EVERYONE LIKES business so collegial. Since he succeeded Stern, Silver has had to navigate the tricky triangulation of maintaining good relationships with the players while keeping his bosses — the owners — feeling like he is representing their interests as well as possible.This process was no different.

At last week’s owners meeting, for example, Thunder owner Clay Bennett made an impassioned speech for all 30 teams to be given a chance to resume their season to avoid going nine months without playing a game and without visibility in their home markets.

Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, on the other hand, made an impassioned plea for the league to invite only the 16 teams currently in the playoff picture and keep as close to the traditional format because of the increased risk of injury to players after such a long layoff, and the increased COVID-19 risk that comes with each additional person invited into the bubble.

From his conversations with players, Silver knew how important it was to them to have regular-season games before the playoffs began, to shake the rust off and minimize injury risk.

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He conveyed that to owners who favored the 16-team plan: If regular-season games were important to players, the league had to find a way for those games to mean something — hence the invitation of six teams within six games of the final playoff spot in each conference, and potential play-in game.

Twenty-two teams was something of a Goldilocks solution. Not too few, not too many. Maybe a little arbitrary, but in a comfortable middle ground all sides could accept.

After the board of governors approved the 22-team plan, several of the eight teams not invited to Orlando issued statements expressing their disappointment at not being able to restart their seasons.

But ultimately, Silver had built enough support and goodwill among his bosses to pass the 22-team plan by a 29-1 vote.

“I still think 30 teams is the best model,” Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler said. “We’re a young team, and we want to play, we want to get better. This is the way you get better is by playing more basketball. So that was clearly our view.

“But I’m going to be a supporter of the return to the NBA. I do think that’s most important. So much work has gone into this. Adam, Mark Tatum, and Rick Buchanan, the guys that are running the league, really, in my opinion, have all spent so much time, have given it so much thought, they’re not being whimsical, they’re not being arbitrary. They just have a tough job. So my view is they’ve really tried to do the best they could for as many people. That’s all you could ask. Despite the fact that I might be disappointed in the final outcome, I am not at all disappointed in the thoughtfulness that went into it.”

SO MUCH HAS happened in the world since March 11. The pandemic, the devastation to the world economy, the demonstrations for social justice following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

The NBA community is wrestling with all of it, much as the world is.

But not many in the NBA family have experienced the effects of COVID-19 as personally as Ressler, whose older brother Jonathan died after being infected with the virus in mid-April. Like many of those afflicted with the virus when it first began to ravage New York City in March, Ressler said it took over a week for his brother to obtain a test.

“I had a reasonably healthy 66-year-old brother that, in my opinion … should not have passed,” he said. “It was a terrible, terrible set of circumstances. And there’s 103,000 other people that have died in this country. So this is just, this was grief upon grief.”

Ressler said he has shared his story and perspective with other owners and those he is close to within the NBA family. And one of the things he keeps coming back to is how unlucky his brother was to fall ill with COVID-19 in its earliest stages, when so little was known about it.

“He was in the wrong city, at the wrong time, at the wrong hospital, with the wrong treatment,” Ressler said. “There was no intent, but … it was too much hysteria at the time. And too significant a lack of understanding on how to treat this virus.

“When you fast forward and learn, and over the past three months appreciate the data and the information, it’s one of the reasons I think the NBA has tried to be incredibly thoughtful.

“So to Adam’s credit, to the entire league’s credit, to the players’ credit — just as we were part of the folks leading the charge to shut the league and shut down, we’re part of the group, I hope, to reopen intelligently and thoughtfully.”

It’s why, despite his personal heartbreak, Ressler said he still considers himself an optimist when thinking about the future of the world as it deals with the virus, and the NBA’s long-term prospects as it wrestles with how to play this season and next. Will it be safe for fans to return? When will teams get back to their home markets? Or is a bubble the only safe atmosphere?

It’s too soon to know, Ressler said. Without all the information, you simply have to have the patience and discipline to trust in your processes and relationships.

“I lost my brother because of a lack of knowledge,” he said. “I believe that to my core. And I’m telling you, that’s changed over the past 90 days. And I believe over the next 90 days, we’re going to learn even more.

“Let’s do the playoffs properly. Let’s do it intelligently without fans for now. And in September, let’s talk about what’s going to happen in November and December.”

The path from March 11 to now has been a long one. But as Silver told the owners at the end of their meeting on Thursday, the plan to restart the season is only the first step back.

“To mix sports metaphors,” Silver told the owners, “we’re in the first inning.”

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