NBA players are about to venture into the unknown, wishing for the best possible outcome for a season that’s scheduled to resume under cloister at Disney World but no longer sure what “best” means anymore.
Will an elaborate plan to regularly test players for COVID-19 and minimize their contact with nonessential personnel keep them healthy long enough to award a championship? How many positive COVID-19 tests will be enough for Commissioner Adam Silver to abandon this restart in Florida, where the number of confirmed new COVID-19 cases spiked this week?
So many questions, so few reassuring answers. With about a week to go before teams are due to report to Orlando for training camp, Clippers coach Doc Rivers acknowledged he’s concerned about the health of everyone involved — and the rest of us.
“I’m hoping, quite honestly, and it’s just a hope, that when we get to the bubble it becomes the safest place in America,” Rivers said during a conference call Wednesday. “But we don’t know any of this, and yeah, this pandemic, it seems like obviously — I guess this is the only political statement I’ll make on it. It would be great if we had national leadership, which we have zero on this, and so, unfortunately, everyone is left to do their own thing from state to state and in some places from city to city. It’s absurd.
“But what we’re going to try to do once we get to Disney is protect each other, protect the area. But we have to get there. You know, you’re almost nervous about that.”
Rivers compared the mind-set required to navigate these anxious times to carrying out a Navy SEALs mission. Resolve, he said, will count as much as skill.
“I was talking to the commissioner last week,” Rivers said, “and he said the team that wins this will deserve a gold star, not an asterisk. If you think about the mental toughness it’s going to take, whoever comes out of this, it’s going to come down to that.
“It’s going to come down to teams trying to get back together and play together. But there’s going to be so many things that are thrown at us that we don’t even know yet, that it’s really going to be a mental toughness challenge.”
Rivers believes he has gained a good read on his players by maintaining constant contact with them since the season was paused on March 11. What began as mundane chats about family and staying in shape took on depths beyond basketball in late May after video emerged of George Floyd dying while being pinned beneath the knee of a Minneapolis policeman.
“Just watch it in full,” Rivers said, “and if that doesn’t change you or affect you, then you have no feelings.”
Conversations about the brutality of Floyd’s death inspired discussions among players and coaches about their lives and their options in responding to pervasive racism. Some have posted messages on social media; some have participated in peaceful protests. Rivers praised the advocacy of Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, whose team announced plans to turn State Farm Arena into a massive polling place to fight voting suppression.
Rivers said the Clippers, with the strong support of owner Steve Ballmer, will speak out against social injustice but Rivers declined to disclose specifics. The NBA has said it will permit players to replace the name on the back of their respective jerseys with phrases related to social justice, and teams will compete in Orlando on courts that will have Black Lives Matters painted on the floor.
Rivers’ conversations with players about Floyd and the protests triggered by Floyd’s death were informed by a lifetime’s experience of racism. Remember, Rivers expertly guided the Clippers through tense times in 2014 when the league banned then-team owner Donald Sterling for life because of racist remarks and mandated that Sterling sell the team.
“I think my life did, honestly,” Rivers said when asked whether the Sterling episode had shaped his current approach. “Sterling is just one of the small chapters in it. I’ve had my house burned down. I grew up in Chicago, and in the time I grew up in Chicago it was probably the most segregated city in the country.
“So, I’m seeing this through my life. I’ve seen it through my father, who was a police officer, and through my grandparents, who told stories about Macon, Georgia, where they grew up. This is just another chapter. But this seems to me to have legs, this one. I’ve seen too many protests that they become protests and then everybody wears a badge or wears signs and then it goes away. This is not going away this time. I really believe this. I think social media is part of that, and I just think our young people are engaged. … This thing has life, and so we have to keep it going.”
In the meantime the NBA is determined to finish this season, barring a massive COVID-19 outbreak that bursts its bubble. Hoping for the best these days means more than getting competitive games and correct calls from officials.