When the sun rose over Sacramento last Wednesday, thousands of local residents woke up with little idea that the NBA world was about to change.
For Kings fans, the date had been circled on their calendars for months. NBA sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans were in town to play the hometown team, and on national TV no less -- the only time this season the small-market Kings would be broadcast to the entire country. And then there’s this: With only a month left in the regular season, the Pelicans and the Kings were both jockeying for a playoff spot. The winner of the game would move into ninth place, just three games back of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.
This game was big, but something way bigger was happening all around them.
At roughly 9:15 a.m. local time Wednesday morning, news began to break on a global scale. World Health Organization chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, announcing that the global COVID-19 outbreak, also referred to as the coronavirus, was officially a pandemic. The WHO announced that, in the previous two weeks, the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold.
In Sacramento, the WHO’s statement suddenly put the state of that very important Kings-Pelicans game into a different focus. Would the game -- scheduled to tip off about 10 hours later at 7:30 p.m. PT -- even be played?
The possibility of going on hiatus had been rumored in recent days as the NBA sent numerous memos to teams about its plans surrounding the evolving coronavirus situation. The day before the Pelicans-Kings game, the Golden State Warriors announced that they’d play their next game, a Thursday tilt against the Brooklyn Nets, in an empty Chase Center -- the first team to take that step. Sacramento’s arena, the Golden 1 Center, was only 85 miles up the road.
Later that afternoon, an answer: The Kings announced at 4:25 p.m. that, after consulting with local public health officials, the game would go on as planned -- with fans in the arena.
The Kings would not take the same measures as their NorCal neighbors, but the announcement did carry the following warning: “Sacramento County Public Health guidance states that individuals considered high-risk, those over 60 years old, and anyone with an underlying chronic health condition or compromised immune system should avoid large public gatherings.”
In other words: game on, but be careful. So, the Pelicans and the Kings arrived at the arena as normal. Ninety minutes before tipoff, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry took questions from the media as part of his normal pregame routine and was asked about the possibility of playing in front of empty arenas.
“You don’t want to play a basketball game with empty seats,” said Gentry, who, at 65 years old, was above the Sacramento County Public Health department’s recommended age threshold. “However, I think it’s also important to understand this isn’t a minor thing by any stretch of the imagination. Not just in this country, but in the world, you have to do whatever you have to, to contain it or to manage it as much as you possibly can. It’s going to take some drastic measures and this may be one of them.”
Outside of the press room, fans began to fill the Golden 1 Center. For those inside the arena, it became clear that the 17,600-seat arena was going to be packed -- coronavirus scare or not.
Only one small thing: The New Orleans Pelicans never emerged from the tunnel for pregame warmups. Instead, Pelicans players, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, were still inside the visiting locker room, digesting what they just saw.
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At 6:27 p.m., just over an hour before the scheduled tipoff, a bombshell hit the NBA world via Twitter and reached the Pelicans’ locker room within seconds. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and the game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, which had been delayed for unknown reasons, was immediately called off. As the Pelicans began to wrap their heads around what was transpiring, it occurred to them that their next stop on the road trip was, as luck would have it, Utah.
Things moved too quickly for that thought to linger much longer. Four minutes later, the NBA announced a monumental decision to suspend the season indefinitely. Madness ensued across the league.
The league statement said the NBA would close its doors at the conclusion of the night’s remaining games. Four games were ongoing, including Nuggets-Mavericks, which, at the time, was on the TVs in the Pelicans’ locker room. It was the ESPN lead-in for their own game.
With Utah-OKC nixed, the Pelicans realized that only one game remained on the night’s schedule, their own.
In effect, the league decided that Pelicans-Kings was worth playing despite the positive test. Twelve minutes after the NBA announced it was suspending the season, the Pelicans’ official Twitter feed announced the game would still go on, citing the league’s statement.
But behind the scenes, something was awry. Fifty-five minutes after the Pelicans’ tweet stating that the game was on, the Pelicans tweeted that the game was off.
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NBA referees have a demanding schedule. Like players and teams, they jet around the country during the season working multiple games a week, totaling up to 60-plus games a season. But NBA officials aren’t afforded all of the luxury accommodations that teams and players have. NBA teams fly via private charters; NBA referees fly commercial.
On Wednesday night, Pelicans-Kings would be staffed by three referees who flew in for the game: crew chief Marc Davis, Courtney Kirkland and Justin Van Duyne. Referees stick together on the road and largely keep to themselves. In every NBA arena, the referee crew is given their own private locker room and are collectively ushered to, and from, the court by local police for security purposes.
Inside the bowels of the Golden 1 Center, news about Gobert’s positive test began to spread as staffers stood around discussing what it meant for the night’s game. Multiple sources confirmed that shortly after the Gobert news broke, two referees emerged from the referee locker room and it was communicated that a third referee hung back because he had officiated the Jazz just two days prior, on Monday night.
The Pelicans’ security personnel were alerted, sources said, and they immediately began communicating that information to the team’s front office members, who were congregated elsewhere in the arena.
Pelicans executives huddled up and grabbed their phones, quickly looking up recent Jazz box scores to confirm the information that had been relayed to them. And there it was: On Monday night, two days prior to this game, Courtney Kirkland had officiated the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake City.
That wasn’t just any game. In that heated contest between championship hopefuls, Gobert was ejected by officials after a late-game scuffle with Raptors guard O.G. Anunoby. When a physical confrontation between Gobert and Anunoby started to escalate, two officials, one of which was Kirkland, sprinted into action and physically intervened to separate Gobert and Anunoby, prying the two players away from each other.
At that moment, the Pelicans’ executives weren’t aware of that ejection sequence where bodies mixed together, but in their minds, it didn’t matter. If Kirkland officiated Gobert recently, the risk of infection was too great.
“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.
Suddenly, Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball walked out of the tunnel and began warming up with an assistant coach, creating the impression that perhaps the game would go on. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram later joined him on the court. Two Kings ballboys rebounded for Ball. Blue latex gloves covered their hands as they passed him the ball.
Moments later, Gentry emerged from the Pelicans’ locker room. He walked with a member of the Pelicans’ media relations team who had crossed his arms to signify to the surrounding media and game personnel. The game was off.
At center court, Kings public address announcer Scott Moak was handed a piece of paper. Moak began to read from the document, speaking into the microphone for the packed arena to hear.
“Ladies and gentlemen, out of an abundance of caution, at the direction of the National Basketball Association, tonight’s game has been postponed,” the announcement began to bellow in the arena. “We ask that you please exercise caution when leaving the arena.”
The Golden 1 Center crowd booed, nearly drowning out the audio from the on-air broadcasts. Security personnel herded the Kings players and Ball off the floor. With the announcement becoming official, the two Pelicans players walked back into the tunnel. Williamson and the rest of the team never took the court.
In the stands, a young girl in a Zion Williamson Pelicans jersey was shown in tears. There would be no game that night. Everyone went home.
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How much risk is too much? It’s a question the Pelicans asked themselves inside at Golden 1 Center and in the hours and days since leaving Sacramento. It’s a question that we’re all asking ourselves. At what point does the risk of infection outweigh the benefit of proceeding with everyday life?
When the news of Gobert’s positive test was publicized, the NBA had some enormous decisions to make. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in talking to the TNT broadcast last Thursday, described the call to suspend the season as a “split-second decision.” All of 240 seconds had transpired between news of Gobert’s positive test and the season being suspended.
But the decision to let the Pelicans-Kings game go on as planned was a deliberate one. Initially, the league felt the risk didn’t reach the critical point of canceling the game. Twelve minutes after the Gobert news became public and 47 minutes before the game was set to take off, the teams had publicly assured fans that, despite the ongoing pandemic and suspension of the season, the nationally-televised game would go on. It wasn’t until word spread of Kirkland’s involvement that things began to change.
During an interview on ESPN on Wednesday, Silver said he communicated with Kings owner Vivek Ranadive following the news about Gobert about potentially calling off the game. Silver noted being down one referee was a factor, but he ultimately decided to cancel “out of an abundance of caution,” per the league statement. The Pelicans’ refusal to take the court and risk infection more than likely forced his hand.
Like players on the court, officials are susceptible to transmit the virus. Whistles are transferred from hand to mouth and the ball is passed through those same hands. It’s not hard to see why team staffers were concerned about Kirkland’s recent assignment.
Dr. Karen Edwards, the chief epidemiologist at the University of California-Irvine, shares those concerns.
“When you have individuals in close contact with each other where bodily fluids are shared, it certainly increases the risk of transmission,” Edwards said. “I certainly think that having people fly around and coming into contact with lots of other people, this is not going to help reduce the spread of the disease.”
The good news is that the NBA referee union confirmed an ESPN report on Saturday that Kirkland was indeed tested in Sacramento and the results came back negative for the COVID-19 virus. Kirkland reportedly stayed quarantined in his downtown Sacramento hotel room for days until he was cleared.
Since Gobert’s positive test was made public, six other organizations are known to have positive tests including the Brooklyn Nets (four players, including Kevin Durant), Los Angeles Lakers (two unnamed players), Boston Celtics (Marcus Smart), Philadelphia 76ers (three members of the organization), Detroit Pistons (Christian Wood) and Denver Nuggets (unnamed staffer or player). Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive.
On Wednesday night, Silver revealed on ESPN that he wasn’t surprised that the Nets saw positive tests, calling NBA players “super spreaders” because of their travel schedule, age and the fact that they often come in close contact with other individuals and large crowds. He indicated that eight teams have been tested at the recommendation of league doctors and public health officials.
“We looked at that group of teams that were most proximate to the (Utah Jazz) and the circle expanded from there,” Silver said.
Plenty more have been cleared, including the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors. Mitchell and Gobert were the only positive tests among the 58 members of Utah’s traveling party. As of now, the COVID-19 virus is known to have spread to at least seven of the league’s 30 teams, though we’ve seen varying levels of detail in those positive cases.
There’s no word on whether other referees have been tested. Sources at the league office and referee union both declined to provide further information, indicating that tests and the results of those tests would be made public at the discretion of the applicable state and local health authorities.
Last Tuesday, the Nets and Lakers played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the end of Brooklyn’s string of five games in eight nights against five different opponents. We now know that between both teams at least a half-dozen players tested positive. According to league data, 15 different referees officiated that five-game stretch for the Nets. And those referees went off to different arenas and worked with different referee crews. It stands to reason that the “super spreaders” label that Silver used to describe NBA players could also be attributed to officials.
When confronted with a positive test exposure, Edwards recommended that the league rewind the calendar 14 days, which is the general incubation period of the novel coronavirus, and analyze players, staffers and referees’ risk for infection across that two-week period.
“That’s a good rule of thumb,” Edwards said. “The problem is there may have been players or referees that are positive and we just don’t know it because they haven’t been tested. But we don’t have enough testing. This is the problem: When we see a positive case, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Untangle that NBA web long enough and you begin to see why Pelicans officials were so concerned about the league’s initial decision to play the game and why infection curves are so steep.
“This is a good example (of that),” Edwards said. “This is why we see an exponential curve where you start seeing a few cases and then it grows and grows and grows. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I’m going to guess that we are going to see more cases in the NBA. The fact that we’ve seen some, this is just the beginning.”
Edwards believes that the NBA’s decision to suspend the season will be a pivotal moment in the timeline of the United States’ attempts to contain the virus, calling it “the right move” to cancel the Kings-Pelicans game out of an abundance of fear of a recently exposed individual spreading the disease. The silver lining of high-profile players like Gobert and Durant testing positive is that it can be a game-changing lesson for the NBA world and beyond.
Said Edwards: “The message for everybody is, nobody is safe from this. There’s no determination that stars don’t get infected and others do. It’s an equal-opportunity virus and everybody is at risk.”
NBC Sports California Kings Insider James Ham contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter (@James_HamNBCS). Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.