NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a SportsCenter interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on Wednesday night that as the league attempts to navigate the coronavirus pandemic, one potential option for bringing back the sport would be some kind of charity competition — one separate from regular play — in order to give millions of NBA fans stuck at home something to watch.
In addition, Silver said he isn’t sure what the NBA schedule will look like if play resumes this season, and isn’t ready to think the league will have to cancel its season. He acknowledged the situation could lead to a complete reshaping of the NBA calendar.
In the immediate term, though, Silver said he and the league’s 30 teams are weighing several scenarios for when — and how — the NBA can resume play whenever it is able to.
“What are the conditions we need for the league to restart? I would say I’m looking at three different things,” Silver told Nichols. “One is, when can we restart and operate as we’ve known it with 19,000 fans in buildings? … Option two is, should we consider restarting without fans, and what would that mean? Because, presumably, if we had a group of players, and staff around them, and you could test them and follow some sort of protocol, doctors and health officials may say it’s safe to play.
“A third option that we are looking at now … the impact on the national psyche of having no sports programming on television. And one of the things we’ve been talking about are, are there conditions in which a group of players could compete — maybe it’s for a giant fundraiser or just the collective good of the people — where you take a subset of players and, is there a protocol where they can be tested and quarantined and isolated in some way, and they could compete against one another?
“Because people are stuck at home, and I think they need a diversion. They need to be entertained.”
Silver said he estimates the NBA employs as many as 55,000 people — including game-day workers at the 29 NBA arenas across the league — and that part of his thinking is, “How can we restart the economy? What role can the NBA play?”
“As I look at the options, maybe we can do this incrementally, and the first step isn’t games with thousands of people in the arenas, but maybe it is just games,” Silver said. “Something I’ve always said is 99% of people consume our game through some sort of media platform. It’s only a tiny percentage of fans who get to see our games in arenas. So those fans who watch on television or whatever device they have are fans just like people in the arena, and maybe through new kinds of technology there are ways fans can be virtual and react to plays and make noise in the arena.”
Silver also said that some of the league’s recent innovations — including the “Elam Ending” at last month’s All-Star Game in Chicago — open up the possibility of doing different things with the schedule under these circumstances whenever games do resume.
“I’m optimistic by nature, and I want to believe that we’re going to be able to salvage at least some portions of this season,” Silver said. “I would say we have done new and creative things in the past, we experimented with this year’s All-Star Game with a unique ending. We’ve talked about play-in tournaments for going into the playoffs. There may be other things we can do with the format.
“I have heard from a lot of our players … they’re going stir crazy, they want to play, they want to compete. Players as you know, I mean, unlike a lot of us in our positions we can just go back to what we were doing, but every player is fighting something that’s unwinnable, and that’s the aging process. So a lost year or lost portion of a season in their careers is very different from other people, so we’re gonna try by every means we can to play basketball again, but I say that the safety and health of our players is first, and our fans, which is why I don’t want to speculate more on that.
“That will be the condition upon which we can play: When public health officials give us the OK.”
Silver also left the door open for the possibility that the league could see its entire calendar reshaped by current events. Some in the NBA, most notably Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, have advocated for the league to shift its schedule from its current October-June rotation to a December-August one to avoid football, for example, and Silver said those ideas could be on the table because of the delay the league has to go through now.
“Possibly,” he said. “Those are things we’re always talking about whether they’re executives at … ESPN or Warner Media, together with our regional sports networks. I will say that the conventional television calendar has changed so much, certainly since I got into this business. Prime time means something very different than it used to now that people in essence carry televisions around with them in their pockets.
“The summer is viewed differently than it was historically from the television standpoint, so regardless of whether we had been going through all this, it’s something that the league office together with our teams has been spending a lot of time on. And we have a lot of our team owners who are technologists, media mavens by background, and so it’s something that committees of owners and league officials have been working on a lot, especially over the last year or so.”
Since the NBA shut down its operations a week ago in the wake of Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert testing positive for the coronavirus, a total of seven players — Gobert, teammate Donovan Mitchell, Detroit Pistons center Christian Wood and four members of the Brooklyn Nets, including forward Kevin Durant — have tested positive for COVID-19.
Silver said eight full teams have been tested so far, and that other individual players who have shown symptoms have been tested. Silver said he himself has not been tested yet. He also said that, to his knowledge, none of the seven players who have tested positive for the virus have felt serious effects to this point.
Meanwhile, in response to outside criticisms of the fact NBA players have been getting tested — including from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio — Silver said the league has simply been following the advice of medical professionals.
“I, of course, understand [de Blasio’s] point in that it’s unfortunate we’re at this position as a society where it’s triage when it comes to testing,” Silver said. “And so the fundamental issue is obviously there are insufficient tests. I’d only say in the case of the NBA, we’ve been following the recommendations of public health officials.
“[Last week in Oklahoma City] the Utah Jazz did not ask to be tested. The Oklahoma public health official there on the spot not only required that they be tested, but they weren’t allowed to leave their locker room, which was for at least four hours after the game where they had to stay, masks on, in the locker room. They couldn’t leave until health authorities had tested them. So that was our first case. And then what followed, when we then had additional positive tests the next day, the protocol then followed that we then followed with, again, health officials’ and our doctors’ recommendations that we then looked at essentially that group of teams that were most proximate to the initial team that had tested positive and then the circle expanded from there.
“Again, I understand from a public health standpoint why some people have reacted the way they did, but I’d say from an NBA standpoint, we were following directives.”
One thing Silver wasn’t willing to do, however, was discuss what the league would do in terms of handing out end-of-season awards and honoring various accomplishments, like who would win the league’s scoring title, if the league is unable to resume play this season.
“I’m not there yet,” Silver said. “We’ll figure it out. I hope I’m not just in denial, but I’m just not there yet.”