In the last nine days, the world has dramatically changed. One-fifth of Americans are under lockdown due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. More are likely to meet the same fate in the coming days.
We’ve also had nine days to digest the night the NBA shut down.
In his latest piece, NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh tells the story of the events that unfolded that evening at Golden 1 Center as the Kings prepared to host the New Orleans Pelicans on March 11. Some of the information that is beginning to trickle in is interesting, to say the least.
As the Pelicans sat in their locker room preparing to face the Kings, they were watching events unfold on the television. On screen was a live shot of the Oklahoma City Thunder-Utah Jazz game that was being held up.
Jazz and Thunder players were quickly swept off the court and minutes later, news began to break that Utah center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and that the NBA season was suspended ... following the Kings-Pelicans game.
According to Haberstroh, a Pelicans' staffer overheard a conversation regarding referee Courtney Kirkland and his involvement in a game two days earlier in Utah. This set off a chain of events.
“We have to shut this down,” a Pelicans executive told his fellow staffers.
There were only about 20 minutes remaining until tipoff, according to those present. Upon learning of Kirkland’s exposure to an infected player, Pelicans staffers walked to the visitor’s locker room and informed the players. One player wondered aloud, according to sources, “What’s the point of even playing this game?” It was decided as a team that they wouldn’t participate in the game, according to sources. Remain in the locker room, team officials instructed.
Meanwhile, on the court, the Kings continued to warm up. Referee crew chief Marc Davis and his colleague Justin Van Duyne stood at the scorer’s table, noticeably without Kirkland present. Davis spoke into a cell phone while Van Duyne waited at his side. From that nucleus at the scorer’s table, word began to trickle out that the game would be canceled due to Kirkland’s exposure. Both the national and local broadcast teams discussed Kirkland and the game’s postponement openly on air."
Chaos. Pandemonium. Fans booing. “Sac-ra-men-to!” chants. And then an empty arena and silence.
Sacramento was ready to play. They understood the stakes at hand. If they beat the Pelicans, they would have tied the season series, moved a game ahead of New Orleans in the standings and climbed to within three games of the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently own the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff chase.
A loss would have been disastrous. The Kings knew the Pelicans’ remaining schedule was much easier than their own. They also knew that they only had one game remaining against New Orleans and a loss would have meant the season series.
The Kings were also uniquely qualified to handle this situation. Strangely, they had been through a circumstance two seasons earlier when protestors shut down the perimeter of Golden 1 Center after an officer-involved shooting cost Sacramentan Stephon Clark his life.
Four days after Clark’s death, protestors surrounded Golden 1 Center, locking arms and keeping fans out. An estimated 3,000 fans made it into the building before security was forced to barricade the doors and turn everyone else away.The March 22, 2018 game against the Atlanta Hawks went on as scheduled after a 13-minute delay. The fans that made it in the building were offered free food and were allowed to come down to the court. The two teams played in front of a sparse, but appreciative crowd.
A similar situation happened five days later when protesters were denied entry into a Sacramento City Council meeting and once again caused a commotion outside of Golden 1 Center. On that evening, approximately 4,000 fans made it inside the building before the team had to shutter the doors for safety purposes.
While there were no protests and a packed house of over 17,600 fans were expected to see the Kings face Zion Williamson and the Pelicans, the team had learned through its previous experience that the decision about whether a game was going to be played or not was in the NBA’s hands, not its own.
According to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who spoke to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols earlier this week, the initial thought was that the game could still be played with only two officials. He was in constant communication with Kings chairman Vivek Randivé during the minutes leading up to the decision to cancel the game.
“What’s so remarkable, I think as people are listening to this now only a week later, all of these decisions seem completely obvious, based on the social distancing protocol we’ve all learned over the last few days,” Silver told Nichols. “But in that moment, it seemed at least there was something to think about, but the thought process was about two minutes long.”
According to a league source, the Kings were more than willing to play the game. But again, they had been through a moment like this before where a game hung in the balance. They were looking at the situation as business as usual, because they knew that the decision was completely out of their hands.
The knowledge and understanding of the coronavirus were in an early stage in the United States. The NBA postponing its season indefinitely started a chain reaction around professional and collegiate sports.
In the end, the Pelicans’ reluctance to take the court played a huge role in the events of the evening. But conversations were already happening as the Kings, Pelicans and the league were reacting in real-time to developing situations.
Should the game have been called earlier? We now know the answer to that question is yes. Silver made the decision to press forward and allow nearly 20,000 fans, media, arena workers and security to enter the building. When circumstances shifted, he changed course, which was the right choice.