Detroit Pistons head coach Dwane Casey was pacing the sideline, barking at the officials, down double digits early in the fourth quarter of a March 11 game against the Philadelphia 76ers and trying to find a way to scratch back in it. That’s when Jim Scholler, the team’s athletic trainer, suddenly sprung up from the bench. Scholler strode toward Casey in the middle of the action and yanked on the coach’s sleeve.
“You gotta take Sekou out of the game,” Scholler said urgently.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Casey responded. “I just put his a– in the game!”
“I know,” Scholler responded, “but Rudy Gobert just tested positive for the coronavirus. Sekou was hanging out with Rudy after our game against them the other night. He might have been exposed.”
Sekou Doumbouya, the young forward who was born in Guinea but raised in France had, in fact, spent time with Gobert following the March 7 game between the Utah Jazz and the Pistons. Retired NBA champion — and French national team alumnus — Boris Diaw was also in town and joined his countrymen.
Now it had been confirmed that Doumbouya had direct contact with the first NBA player who had tested positive for COVID-19.
“We took him off the floor immediately,” Casey told ESPN. “We brought him out in the back to the locker room, away from the team, and finished the game.”
Information was still trickling in regarding Gobert and the Jazz, while the Pistons were simultaneously completing their game in real time. Casey returned his focus to the court and how to put the clamps on Sixers center Joel Embiid.
In the meantime, conversations continued between the Pistons’ medical staff, training staff and front office on how to proceed with Doumbouya, who insisted he was healthy. “When I took Sekou out, he looked at me like I was crazy,” Casey said. “So did Tony Snell, the guy I had taken out for Sekou, and then put back in for Sekou.”
At that juncture, Casey said, he wasn’t fretting about the possibility that more of his players — and himself — might also be at risk.
“To be honest, that didn’t enter my mind,” Casey admitted. “At that point we weren’t thinking, ‘Oh, this is huge, it means they’re going to cancel the season.’ In that moment, I was thinking, ‘This is probably an isolated case.”’
Doumbouya, who stumped to return to action, eventually reentered the game after much debate with 4:40 left.
“He wanted to play,” Casey said. “He had already been out there. I guess it’s easy in hindsight to question it, but at that time we had none of the information that’s out there now. We were in the middle of a game, and the player was telling us he felt perfectly fine, and we had no information that indicated that he was sick.”
The NBA announced that due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the 2019-20 season would be suspended effective March 12.
• NBA execs to see 20% salary cut
• KAT: Mom in coma, showed symptoms
• LeBron: No excitement, joy without fans
• Full list of cancellations, suspensions
“We were pretty religious about doing that right up until they halted the season,” Casey said. “I think it made a difference.”
The Pistons, like all NBA teams, await word when they can resume regular activity. In the meantime, the strength and conditioning staff has delivered treadmills, exercise bikes, weights and bands to house-bound athletes eager to shoot some hoops. Most of them do not have their own courts in their homes, so conditioning is the focus for the moment, Casey said.
“If you think about it,” Casey said, “this is the first time in these guys’ lives that no gym is available to them. They don’t have access to any state-of-the-art NBA facilities, no college gyms, no high school gym, no health clubs. It will be a challenge for all of us to get everyone reengaged mentally go back and play.”
Casey estimated teams would need a minimum of two weeks to reintegrate the players back into the NBA rhythm. He said he was confident his team would play basketball again before summer ends.
“It’s already a season,” he said, “that no one will ever forget.”