Even among those who have built their careers and lives around basketball, the attitude toward the NBA’s planned restart in Orlando has not been unconditional enthusiasm.
The Sixers travel to Disney World on Thursday and are scheduled to resume play on Aug. 1, and yet shouting, “Basketball is back!” would feel incongruous in so many ways. There are valid reasons to be excited, sure — watching Joel Embiid dunk and shimmy again sounds fun — but also to be wary and troubled.
An obvious one is the location of the NBA’s campus. Florida reported 9,989 new coronavirus cases Wednesday and hospitals across the state are running out of available ICU beds, including in Orange County.
Outside of financial motivations, it is unclear why playing a sport during a pandemic would be necessary or prudent, especially in a location that’s seen such a rise in cases and toll on the healthcare system. The vision of sports being a unifier, symbol of hope and welcome distraction does not outweigh other strong, tangible concerns.
Embiid, who said Tuesday he “hated the idea” of playing at Disney World and does not believe it is sufficiently safe, laid out the situation well.
If you told me that the current trend is that people are getting sick and a lot of people are dying,” he said, “obviously you don’t know what's going to happen and you don’t want to be in a situation where you put your life at risk ... and all that stuff, just for what? The money and all that stuff. At the end of the day, basketball is not all that matters. I've got family, I've got myself to look out for. That's all I care about.
Is there a legitimate argument against his perspective? One might claim Embiid should be quiet and do his job, as many who are paid much less have. There are several rebuttals to this contention, though.
Firstly, the fact that people across the country have gone back to work does not automatically mean the regulations which cleared their return were advisable. For instance, the spike in Florida’s cases sure seems to suggest that many aspects of life were allowed to reopen too soon there. Second, the money Embiid has earned should not prohibit him from highlighting that the NBA’s venture contains substantial risk. And third, Embiid’s concerns are not wholly self-motivated.
We wear masks, use hand sanitizer and physically distance to minimize the risk of exposing others to the coronavirus. Embiid said he’ll follow all of the league’s health and safety protocols but is not confident everyone else will do the same. With 22 groups of up to 35 people expected to be in the league’s “bubble,” that is a fair worry, even with the NBA's meticulous plans to maintain as much separation as possible.
Even if Embiid were only concerned with himself, it's worth noting the long-term, non-fatal effects of the coronavirus are not yet known. It appears there may be serious future impacts for some, such as lung scarring. Even for athletes who are young and otherwise healthy, the virus can have a severe effect. Phillies second baseman Scott Kingery recounted a harrowing, hellish experience with COVID-19 that included chills, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and loss of smell and taste in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury.
Brett Brown talked last week about hoping to see “appropriate fear” of the coronavirus. At a minimum, it’s apparent the level of fear here should not be zero.
There is no monolithic view from the Sixers on the restart plan.
Raul Neto is concerned about being away from loved ones but thinks “there’s not any way to be safer than what we’re going to be going through in the bubble.” Though Furkan Korkmaz knows there are “going to be some risks,” he believes in the NBA. While respecting the personal decisions of those who sit out, Ben Simmons trusts the league and veterans like LeBron James and Chris Paul. Alec Burks considered opting out when he learned his wife was pregnant — she’s due in December — but chose to go along with his teammates. Shake Milton “doesn’t really think we should be playing.”
It is a nuanced and high-stakes matter. For Milton and other players, the thought of detracting from issues such as racial inequality and police brutality doesn’t sit well.
“There are issues going on right now in the world that are way bigger than a sport, way bigger than the game of basketball,” Milton said Tuesday. “I feel like we’re on the cusp of finally having people tune in and really try to listen and try to understand more about the things that are happening in our country. I feel like the moment is too big right now and I don’t want the game of basketball to overshadow it.”
Mike Scott described the NBA’s idea of allowing players to choose from a pre-approved list of words and phrases to put on the back of their jerseys as “terrible” and a “bad list.”
The NBA has said the aim of the restart is to “take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice.” It will certainly be interesting to see what the league and its players do on that front.
“I think there’s definitely going to be something that we’re going to be doing,” Josh Richardson said Monday, “so just keep your eyes peeled.”
The aforementioned financial incentives loom over just about every choice the league makes. If the season were to be canceled, the CBA could be terminated under the force majeure clause.
Commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t ruled out cancellation if the NBA’s plan proves ineffective.
“If we had any sort of significant spread within our campus, we would be shut down again,” Silver said Tuesday in an interview with Fortune Brainstorm Health, per ESPN.
We don’t have an exact number from Silver regarding what would constitute a “significant spread.” If we never find out what it is, that’s a very positive development.
But, as the NBA attempts to pull off a multi-month indoor sporting endeavor during a pandemic, it’s only logical to have some degree of trepidation.
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