NBA struggles against virus

League confident its protocols can withstand outbreak after more than 40 players infected

Karl-Anthony Towns, who had tested positive for Covid-19, has vowed to overcome the disease that claimed the life of his mother and six other family members.
Karl-Anthony Towns, who had tested positive for Covid-19, has vowed to overcome the disease that claimed the life of his mother and six other family members.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • On Tuesday last week, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and its players' union tightened their coronavirus protocols - mandating that players spend at least the next two weeks almost exclusively at home or at their hotels on the road when not playing.

Three days later, the Washington Wizards held a news conference saying that six of their players had tested positive for the coronavirus and that the team did not have enough players to practise.

That same day, Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves star whose mother died of Covid-19, said that he, too, had tested positive.

Almost one month into the season, the NBA has struggled to contain the coronavirus while playing outside the restricted campus at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where it finished last season.

On Wednesday, the NBA announced the postponement of its 16th and 17th game - Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers and today's clash between the Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks.

More than 40 players have tested positive since training camps began early last month - 27 of them in the past two weeks.

Only eight of the league's 30 teams have not had a game postponed at least in part because too many of their players could have been infected.

Starting from Wednesday, team security are stationed at mid-court before and after games to remind players not to hug one another.

The protocol shifts signal the difficulty in trying to play a contact sport indoors during the winter, when health experts have said the pandemic will be at its worst.

Even so, the league remains confident its health and safety protocols are strong enough to withstand the outbreaks and that the postponements will not threaten the integrity of its season.

"I think it's in line with where we thought we could be given how serious the pandemic was getting," David Weiss, a senior vice-president of the league, said of the postponements. "This exact time period is when we thought it was going to be difficult."

The NBA has scheduled only the first half of its season, which was shortened to 72 games from 82, in part because it predicted some postponements. According to Dr John DiFiori, the NBA's director of sports medicine, the league has found common transmission points, like car pools without masks and shared meals.

"Your protocol is only as good as the people are able to follow it," said Dr Cindy Prins, a public health researcher at the University of Florida.

"The protocols could be great. They're relying, though, on individuals again. But now they're relying on individuals with a lot less oversight. And they're relying on people to understand what puts them at risk in getting Covid. We're not good at that. I think we've proven that as a country."

George Hill, a guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder, told reporters last week in response to the tighter protocols: "I'm a grown man, so I'm going to do what I want to do. If I want to go see my family, I'm going to go see my family. They can't tell me I have to stay in the room 24/7.

"If it's that serious, then maybe we shouldn't be playing. It's life. No one's going be able to just cancel their whole life for this game."

Vaccination also forms one of the cornerstones of the league's protocols to dealing with Covid-19.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has claimed the league will not try to jump the queue to have players vaccinated before priority groups including healthcare workers.

However, he said on Tuesday the league has now discussed having players - most of whom are black - getting the vaccine as a way of promoting its "safe and effective" use in the African American community, which has been disproportionately hit hard by the pandemic.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2021, with the headline 'NBA struggles against virus'. Subscribe