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A pandemic through the lens of the NBA

On Wednesday, NBA fans watched in real time as the league reached its awkward and inevitable inflection point.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

When the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season on Wednesday, for me at least, the news felt imminent in the days leading up to it — a matter of when, not if. It was a small thread in the greater tapestry of COVID-19-related news as this country and its various institutions grapple with the decision of putting public health first. Nonetheless, watching it take place in real time, on national TV, left an indelible mark.

Like many on Wednesday night, I followed it live after seeing reports from Oklahoma City and Utah beat writers that things were amiss just minutes before the teams’ scheduled tipoff. That it was happening in the context of the continued spread of the virus, increased pressure on the league to take action, and one particularly high-profile incident involving a Jazz player made it an easy decision to tune in. In the least it would indulge my basketball interests; at most, my less healthy anxiety and appetite for information on the subject at hand.

That information came sparse on the ESPN broadcast at first. With the teams in their respective locker rooms, the refs urgently shuffling about, and commentators doing their best to make substantial but not presumptuous banter, all the cameras could focus on was the on-court entertainment trying to mute the situation through noise and gesticulation. Dance teams bounced and clapped from sideline to sideline; Rumble the Bison blasted T-shirts into the crowd through a Gatling gun before attempting halfcourt trick shots; later the halftime act was brought on to belt out some Top 40-sounding stuff: a desperate assault on the senses as some 16,000 people in the stands — all perfectly healthy in theory, even if one specific NBA player wasn’t, and presumably not at all at risk themselves of transmission despite being within 6-8 feet of one another — braced for a game to start.

Eventually the Thunder PA announcer addressed the fans at Chesapeake Energy Arena, calmly and vaguely telling those attendance to file out, that they were safe, and to check the Oklahoma City Thunder website for more information. The fans complied, with the arena mics catching a light tenor of boos as they headed for the exits.

The game’s postponement was followed by the Gobert diagnosis, and almost immediately after that by the news of the season being deferred. Altogether it made for a night that the league would’ve gladly avoided if it saw this coming, a theme that seems increasingly universal as it relates to the response to COVID-19.

Things didn’t get real when the NBA bit the bullet on Wednesday night — the stakes have been escalating for a while now. But for those who consume media, and a chunk of their news, through a predominantly NBA lens, everything relating to the coronavirus and how it can acutely impact even one aspect of life probably felt more real. As followers of the game we have a heightened sense of the impact across this board: we know the faces and names at risk and can visualize the spread of contagion more clearly; we have an idea of the potential revenue lost by the rich folks and an emotional concern for the wages lost by the peripheral NBA economy; we work out the logistics of a potential shortened season and foregone postseason; we lament the loss of our own hobby and escape.

However you process it, the NBA shutting down provides a specific but razor-thin slice of the impact of a growing and unimaginable health crisis, and hopefully being witnesses can shape our own understanding of the role we should play and our consideration of the moment: please strongly consider practicing social distancing for the next week at least. Stay healthy, Spurs fans.