Coronavirus pandemic: Commentary

NBA heading for tip-off but it may return too soon

Building up to today's virtual meeting between ownership representatives from the National Basketball Association's (NBA) 30 teams and commissioner Adam Silver, league officials are zooming in on a scheduling format to present to the players' union to finish out a rebooted season.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, advised me on Monday he thought it would more realistically be "over the next two weeks that the big decisions will be made", but they are coming soon.

"We are going to play basketball," Charles Barkley said in a text message.

The league great told ESPN the same thing in a radio interview on Tuesday, saying that his Turner Sports bosses had advised him to get ready to come back to work as an analyst.

The league's publicly stated target is to play games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, part of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, albeit with an undetermined number of teams, starting in "late July".

Players league-wide are thus preparing to be summoned to return to their team markets as early as next week for quarantine measures and a gradual return to five-on-five practices, all in anticipation for the eventual move to the secure location.

In other words: Momentum behind an NBA comeback, more than two months into its abrupt shutdown, is as strong as we have seen.

"It's been 21/2 months of, 'What if?'" Michele Roberts, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, told ESPN.

"My players need some level of certainty. I think everybody does."

Indeed. Who wouldn't want a little more sureness right now? Yet I must confess that I also feel increasing uneasiness the closer we get to the game's return.

So many unknowns persist, including how rigidly the NBA will control access into and out of its "campus" base at Disney and how players' bodies will react to what ultimately amounts to a thoroughly uncharacteristic three-plus months away from the game. The standard of play after that sort of layoff is also questionable.

As slowly as things may be moving for hoops-starved fans, and even the players as Roberts suggested, there is a nagging sense that the comeback wheels are still spinning faster than they should.

Basketball in the NBA is not merely a full-contact sport but one played indoors.

The amount of encouragement the league can thus take from the relatively promising start to the German Bundesliga's comeback, two weeks in, is offset by longstanding warnings from public health experts that the coronavirus is more readily transmitted indoors than outdoors.

A general manager asked me the other day to make a case that the NBA world feels appreciably safer than it did on March 11 when Silver suspended operations.

It is a subjective question, to be sure, but I could not muster much pushback to his argument that money reasons are the only reasons to support resuming the season now.

The league's go-to counter to such claims is that conditions are unlikely to be safer in October, November and December than they are now - and that it could be catastrophic financially for all sides in the sport to delay a return when safety assurances do not appear to be coming any time soon.

So there is little to be gained, such thinking holds, by waiting for more progress towards the development of a vaccine breakthrough that is likely to be far down the road.

It is an argument that must resonate given that Roberts told ESPN "the players really want to play".

Compared to the much more contentious dynamic between Major League Baseball and its players' union, NBA players generally leave the impression that they believe in the league's ability to craft suitably detailed safety protocols for a return to play.

They know that the union's president, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, is in constant contact with Silver.

They also heard directly from Silver earlier this month about the league's confidence that it can obtain the number of kits needed to facilitate a large-scale testing programme without inviting more criticism from politicians or the public.

Yet so many unknowns persist, including how rigidly the NBA will control access into and out of its "campus" base at Disney and how players' bodies will react to what ultimately amounts to a thoroughly uncharacteristic three-plus months away from the game.

The standard of play after that sort of layoff is also questionable and it is not known how comfortable players will be with the added risks attached to playing indoors compared to more expansive spaces like footballers.

The more pressing curiosity is what schedule constructions the league office will pitch to the players.

Namely how many teams will be invited to Orlando; whether or not they will try to wedge in some regular-season games first and which of the myriad of play-off concepts is ultimately employed.

On the verge of the NBA's comeback, I cannot stop fretting about how the league can manage to stay back in the face of this unpredictable virus. Something tells me that at least some of the league's power brokers, deep down, feel the same.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2020, with the headline 'NBA heading for tip-off but it may return too soon'. Print Edition | Subscribe