What was startling was just how quickly it all ended. The New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings didn’t even get a chance to play what was going to be the final NBA game for the foreseeable future. One of the officials working the game, it turns out, had previously worked a game featuring Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz star who had just tested positive for Covid-19. With that, one of the most surreal seasons in basketball history came to a halt. The NBA has suspended 2019-20 NBA season, and no one knows if and when the league will resume.
The season began, ominously enough, with an earthquake. On 6 July last year, a 7.1 earthquake struck southern California, and its effects could be felt as far away as Las Vegas, where the New York Knicks and the Pelicans were playing their first preseason game. No one was injured but after a 15-minute delay, the game was called off out as a precaution. It was the first cancellation of the season; it would not be the last.
The next disruption came in the form of a single tweet. In October, before the regular season was about to begin, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet in solidarity with anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. China responded with a series of actions including the suspension of television coverage of NBA games. The fractured relationship between the league and China became a worldwide story, with the NBA opening itself to criticism from all sides in what quickly became a no-win situation. The NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, would later say that the league probably lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to their now-strained relationship with China, all the while being accused of being too deferential to a country responsible for untold numbers of human rights violations.
In the wake of the biggest crisis in Silver’s tenure as commissioner (to that point, anyway) came December’s news that his predecessor, David Stern, maybe the most influential non-player in the history of the league, had died of a brain hemorrhage. In a normal season, Stern’s passing alone would have been enough to put a pall over the entire league, but it was eclipsed by the death of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his teenage daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in California.
Still, despite all of this, the basketball never stopped. Only one match, a meeting between the Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers scheduled to be played two days after Bryant’s death, was postponed. The NBA rescheduled it for 9 April when, the thought was, things would have returned to something resembling normality.
That idea already seemed laughable on Tuesday morning, as debate raged about whether the NBA should play games in empty arenas to limit the kind of large-scale gatherings where a highly contagious virus like Covid-19 can spread like wildfire. The league was hesitant to take such drastic measures for many reasons, most of them financial. Charging fans to watch the game is, of course, one of the main ways that teams make money and, for owners, that’s really the point of the whole enterprise.
Gobert’s diagnosis, however, effectively took the decision out of the NBA’s hands. With the news that a player was already infected, meaning there was a serious likelihood that the virus was already spreading among players and those who had come in contact with them, having teams continue to travel around the country to play each other would be downright foolish. It wasn’t that the NBA made the correct decision to indefinitely suspend all games – they simply did not have any other option.
It’s impossible to guess the financial impact this will have on the teams and the league. The players operate under guaranteed contracts that should ensure that they will get paid in full even if this is it for the season. Those who will be impacted the most will be the stadium employees, who could find themselves without a source of income. (It should be noted that Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, has discussed putting together “a program” to help his team’s hourly employees, and it’s possible that others could follow suit.)
What happens next is a question that nobody can answer, as this is an unprecedented situation. The start of the 1998-99 and 2011-12 NBA seasons were both delayed due to lockouts but this is the first time the league has suspended action in the middle of a season. The most obvious parallel is when the MLB, the NFL and other sports leagues went on a short hiatus after the 9/11 terrorist attacks (the NBA was in the offseason when the attacks occurred).
It’s difficult not to see parallels. Then, as now, the fact that teams stopped playing was a jarring sign that something profoundly destabilizing was taking place. Sports provide a certain amount of psychological comfort to fans. As long as teams can still come together to play what are – in the grand scheme of things – rather trivial athletic contests, things can’t be that bad.
With that in mind, it’s clear why Wednesday night’s decision was, for many fans, the moment when the full seriousness of the Covid-19 outbreak truly hit home. This is something new. The world we know is about to be put on pause and we don’t know for certain when it will resume. Throughout this season, basketball was able to solider through a litany of tragedies and real world controversies, for 48 minutes there was nothing but the game to focus on, but there are some events you simply can’t play through.