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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter


TORONTO – As the highly anticipated return of basketball becomes more realistic, a common feeling around the NBA is cautious optimism.

It’s been 11 weeks since Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the global pandemic forced the league – and subsequently the rest of professional sports – to suspend operations indefinitely.

Barring an unforeseen setback, the NBA is on track to resume play at a neutral site – Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando – later this summer, as multiple reports have confirmed. The league’s plan is continuing to take shape and there are many details to be ironed out over the coming days, weeks and months, but what was once wishful thinking now seems inevitable.

There was hope the campaign could be salvaged when the season was put on pause on March 11, but in speaking with people around the association – players, coaches, front office personnel and support staff – you get the sense that several remain torn about a return.

There is still so much uncertainty, so much risk and, for many, still plenty of skepticism about whether or not a return to play can be executed safety and with everybody’s best interests in mind.

Most insist that they trust commissioner Adam Silver, the board of governors and the players association to find a workable solution, but there are more lingering questions than answers available.

"I’m not gonna bulls--t you, I’m pretty skeptical just because I’m a skeptical person," Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet told TSN in a wide-ranging phone interview last week. "But I think for me, I’ve been trying to be more in support publicly just because I want to play, you know what I mean? I’m not gonna create the rift that’s gonna [keep us from playing]. You could list a million reasons why we wouldn’t be able to play. There are certain scenarios where guys are probably [reluctant] – maybe they don’t feel comfortable or guys are on teams that aren’t gonna make the playoffs. How do we get through all of those hurdles?

"There are just a lot of questions that nobody really has the answers to. So, I would just say the uncertainty and the unpredictability in my eyes would be the biggest challenge because we’re trying to plan for the unknown."

The NBA announced Saturday it has opened exploratory talks to resume the season on Disney grounds in late July. With nearly 24,000 nearby hotel rooms and multiple arenas on site, the complex will be able to host games and practices while also housing players and personnel in a secure "campus-like environment."

What will the rest of the season look like? That’s been a hot topic of debate amongst media, fans and even some players over the past few days, with the league considering multiple different scenarios.

How many of the 30 teams will be included? Would they play regular-season games? If so, how many? Or will they go straight to the playoffs? Should they experiment with a play-in tournament or re-seeding?

Those are all interesting questions, but that’s not what players and staff are most concerned about. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they want to know how the league is going to keep them and their families safe.

Would they be able to bring their families with them to Orlando? If so, would it even be advisable? How often would everybody need to be tested? Can the league justify securing the number of tests that would be required when some segments of North America still don’t have enough? What would happen if and when somebody tests positive?

In that case, the league has informed players it would isolate the individual but wouldn’t stop play. What if multiple players were to test positive? What if there’s an outbreak? What measures will be taken, both on and off the court, to mitigate risk?

"Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said in a press release over the weekend. "We are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place."

Throughout the process, the NBA has kept players, coaches and their respective unions in the loop. The league is making a conscious effort to address those very important questions and concerns, but there is some information they simply don’t have. Nobody does.

"I don’t know that it’s ever going to be perfect until they get a vaccine, but you’d love to have a vaccine or some type of [treatment] that’s going to help fight it if you do catch it, and that type of thing," Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey told TSN. "Testing has got to be much improved everywhere, which I know is a big issue.

"We just don’t know how they’re really going to make sure it’s safe as far as the hotels or where you’re playing and that it’s all fully sanitized. I know they sanitize the practice facilities for 30 minutes between workouts, and that’s with four players or whatever the number is at a time, so you can imagine the amount of sanitation that would have to take place to do it for an entire team or two entire teams. So, there are a lot of things that would have to be worked out to make sure that it’s safe."

The former Raptors coach has seen just how devastating the virus can be. His team hosted the Jazz on March 7, just a few days before Gobert’s diagnosis. Pistons forward Christian Wood was the NBA’s third player to test positive. Casey’s test came back negative, but he had to quarantine alone in his basement for two weeks. His wife brought food down and left it at the door. He couldn’t see his kids.

He can put all of that into perspective, though. His daughter’s junior high school basketball coach, Nathaniel Slappey Jr. (49 years old), recently passed away from COVID-19. His father, Nathaniel Slappey Sr. (80 years old), had died a couple days earlier, also from the virus. The family held a drive-by service, with people waving and dropping off gifts, but they weren’t able to grieve the tragic losses on their own terms.

"That tore me up, just to think, when something is that close to home," said Casey.

At 63, Casey is the fourth-oldest head coach in the league. Detroit had a 20-46 record when the season was put on hold – 13th in the East – so it’s unclear if Casey and his team would be included in the league’s restart proposal. If they are, he trusts that the NBA’s plan will consider him, as well as other individuals who might be at a higher risk.

"I don’t know if we’re going to have perfectly safe if we’re going to get back in the next couple of months, or whatever it is," he said. "But we trust that [Silver] and the entire NBA staff are working diligently. Those things you’d like to see, but those things may not be possible. The vaccine may not be there before we get back playing again. But I’m willing to do whatever the front office and the rest of the league is willing to do because I’m 100 per cent confident that they’re not going to put us in situation that’s not safe."

That’s where folks are unified, through their confidence in Silver, who has earned their trust and respect, and their passion for the game. Then there are the financial implications – the biggest motivator for both the players and the league.

"I think guys are on the same page, I think it would be silly if they weren’t," said Lakers guard and former Raptor Danny Green. "Most guys understand what’s at risk here. We’re losing a portion of our cheque now and if we cancel the season we’ll lose even more next season and in the future if they change the [collective bargaining agreement]. So, there’s a pretty good understanding around the league that if we don’t salvage the season a lot is at risk, especially when it comes to our money and our league being what it was. I think everybody is on the same page from that [standpoint]."

Assuming it’s safe to play, just about everybody wants to play, but everybody has a different level of tolerance for risk – both in the abstract and the literal sense. Some players have pre-existing medical conditions. Some have families or loved ones who aren’t comfortable with them going back to work. Some of the coaches are older, as are many of the officials and arena staff. Some players and coaches on non-playoff teams might be less inclined to put their health and safety on the line.

That raises another important question: What if somebody decides not to play?

Right now, the NBA’s individual player workouts are strictly voluntary. Teams are prohibited from pressuring players to come into their practice facilities. The Raptors opened OVO Athletic Centre more than two weeks ago. Only a few of their prominent players are in Toronto, but until recently none of them had gone to the building. Attendance for these workouts has been mixed around the league and varies from team to team, according to sources.

That’s telling. If some guys are reluctant to go and get up shots in an empty gym today, are they going to feel comfortable playing a game in a couple months from now?

If and when the NBA returns, will player participation be mandatory? If somebody opts to stay home, will they still get paid? What can the league do to create an environment where players feel comfortable voicing their concerns and maybe make the tough decision not to play?

"I would assume it would be a situation where it’s like, ‘We’re resuming play, the league is back open and if you don’t wanna play, that’s fine. We’re not going to punish you, but you probably won’t get paid,’" VanVleet speculated. "I can’t see somebody getting a paycheque for not playing. I don’t see a scenario where that happens. But I don’t think they’re going to penalize guys because of the situation we’re in. That’s the point of having a union and making sure everybody is on the same page before we even move forward."

VanVleet’s primary concern is for the safety of his two young children and his girlfriend. He doesn’t anticipate bringing them along if the season resumes in a ‘bubble’ location. That would be hard for him and his family – they’re used to being apart when he’s on the road, sometimes for a couple weeks at time, but never for extended periods like this.

"If I’m there by myself I think I’m okay with it," VanVleet said. "Now, if my kids were there, or things like that, I would be a little bit more on guard. That’s just me speaking personally. I’m pretty at ease with it. I’m not letting it freak me out, but I also, to my knowledge, don’t have any pre-existing medical conditions or anything like that. So, there are guys in the league that are probably going to have real concerns about the virus itself and I understand that."

"I think as long as they’re doing their due diligence and it’s not just a money play, where it’s like, ‘Okay, let’s get back to play because we have all this money we need to make up.’ I know that’s probably one of the factors but as long as there are real guidelines in terms of what we’re doing from a health standpoint, which I feel there is, I think that I’ll be okay with it. And if not, I’ve accepted it. I think we’ve been on break long enough to where I’m pretty open-minded to any idea that gets us back playing."

The league has a board of governors’ call scheduled for Friday, according to ESPN. That could be the next step in solidifying a way forward. Optimism is growing, but there are still major decisions to be made and plenty of people that need to be reassured.