The internet connection was crisp, Mike D’Antoni’s voice was clear and his wit razor sharp.
Asked about how his team would handle health and safety protocols that suggest you keep a distance, the Houston Rockets coach quipped “that’s how we guard anyways.”
The Houston coach wasn’t 100% sure he had been cleared to coach in Orlando, Fla., for the resumption of the NBA season when he spoke Tuesday morning — he’s considered “high risk” for coronavirus complications because of his age. The secret’s out, he joked, everyone knows he’s 69 years old.
But his safety — and that of other people at increased risk — isn’t something the league is taking lightly. Assistant coaches Lionel Hollins of the Lakers and Jeff Bzedlik of New Orleans won’t be with their teams because of health concerns.
After the Rockets leave Thursday for Orlando and clear quarantine, D’Antoni, known as the originator of Phoenix’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, will institute his “Six Feet or More” coaching style.
Huddles are going to be spread out. It might be easy to hear what the other team is talking about so some light spying might occur. And while head coaches (and four assistants) can be mask-free during practices and games, D’Antoni said he won’t be without a face covering.
“I’ll wear a mask. That’s what I do walking down the street here or going into a grocery store. Wear a mask. I don’t understand the other reasoning behind not,” D’Antoni said. “Now, I don’t think it’ll interfere with my coaching. They can hear me; they know what I’m saying. If we have a problem, you know, maybe we’ll figure something out, but I don’t think that’s a problem.
“The referees won’t be able to see my lips move and they won’t know if I’m yelling at them or not. That’s a plus.”
Seeing the positives isn’t as easy for everyone.
Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum, one of the hottest players in the NBA before the season was suspended on March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said he still hasn’t gotten to a place where he’s ecstatic to be back competing.
“I was very unsure,” he said of playing. “I don’t think I really made a decision until a few days ago. There are a multitude of reasons why I wasn’t comfortable — still not comfortable, still not excited about it. Not thrilled.
“Obviously with what we’re fighting for against racism and social injustice and inequality. Obviously, the virus is still well and alive, continues to rise in Florida. And for me, just being away from my son for two or three months, that’s what’s really bothering me.”
For Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, the idea of restarting the season wasn’t appealing. The All-Star center had battled injuries and some around the NBA believed he might skip games.
“I hated the idea. I feel like, with everything going on, it’s unfortunate what’s been going on in the world,” Embiid said. “Obviously, people look at it a different way, there might be some other reasons behind everything going on. But to me, that part never mattered to me. All I want to be is, you know, stay healthy, and stay safe, keep the people around me safe. I want to make sure I’m able to live for a long time and not have any sort of, I don’t know, consequences in the future. … But like I said it’s unfortunate. I’m not a big fan of the idea, but then again, I’m going to do my job.”
With the first wave of teams now in Orlando and more on the way over the next two days, everyone is going to get a clearer look at what “doing their jobs” will mean. At first, it’ll be a strict quarantine. Then, it’ll be strict rules to follow around the Disney World campus with limited interactions. And then, if things go to plan, it’ll be games — and more strict rules.
Planning for all of it? It’s a daunting task. Adaptability and adjustments are going to be key. But at least D’Antoni will be there.
“Every day will be an adventure,” he said.