CHICAGO — Chicago Bulls coach Billy Donovan on Thursday returned to off-day Zooming, recalling the days of last season when teleconferences were the only way reporters could communicate with coaches and players.
Surely this won’t be the last time an NBA team decides to keep coaches and players away from media members, and we’re certain to hear that familiar 2020 refrain — “out of an abundance of caution” — more often in the coming weeks.
The latest COVID-19 surge and the uncertainties over the omicron variant likely will bring more chaos to sports at the end of 2021 and the start of ’22.
What a difference a month makes. On Nov. 14, at a Bulls-Los Angeles Clippers game at the Staples Center, the seats in media row were placed so closely together we could barely move without bumping shoulders. We were able to interview Donovan and DeMar DeRozan from a few feet away after the game, with reporters wearing masks and Donovan and DeRozan maskless.
No one seem too worried.
But that’s how quickly things can change. Our hopes for a “return to normal” in 2021 were realized, only for things to slide backward in the final days.
From empty stadiums last winter to gradual capacity increases in the spring to 100% allowed by the summer, we seemingly got past our COVID-19-related anxieties and felt as if we were never going back. As long as we were fully vaccinated, socially distancing and wearing masks, the dangers of contracting COVID-19 would be mitigated.
We were wrong, of course, and now the news of players and coaches testing positive is so prevalent it’s leading to more postponements and forcing leagues to update their protocols.
Saturday’s DePaul-Northwestern men’s basketball game in Evanston was one of several college games canceled after a positive COVID-19 test in the Blue Demons program, and the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association were in the process Thursday of mandating daily testing for players and coaches, beginning Friday, according to an Associated Press report. Fully vaccinated players previously did not need to be tested daily.
“I’ve got a feeling we may go back to some of the stuff we did last year, which was clearly no fun,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said Wednesday night. “But we’ve got to get through the season, so I guess that’s the sacrifice.”
After avoiding postponing games this season, the NBA finally granted mercy on the Bulls last week despite having the minimum eight players available for a game. They are scheduled to play Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers at the United Center, but who knows?
Likewise, the Brooklyn Nets had only eight players available Tuesday against the Toronto Raptors after James Harden and several others entered the health and safety protocols. The Nets beat the Raptors in overtime, though it helps when one of the available players is Kevin Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer.
Postponements are likely to become more prevalent. Are eight players enough to play an NBA game, or is postponement a better option?
“I think the league is trying to do everything it can possibly do to play games and also keep teams safe and healthy,” Donovan said Thursday. “I don’t know what the right number is in order to say this team should play or this team shouldn’t play. Certainly we got hit really hard with this and we lost a lot of players. Other teams have been hit a little bit but not as much. And I’ve always said this: When you lose key players off your team, it definitely impacts you.
“A lot of this stuff that is going on, to be quite honest, is decisions the league is making based on the information they’re getting from probably the CDC, medical experts of how we need to progress and go forward, and whether or not things should be postponed or teams should continue to play.
“I’m not really privy to those conversations, so I can’t really comment on that other than the fact that with the surge that’s going on right now, I think the league is probably in the process of figuring out how they’re going to go about testing everybody else in the league. And certainly when you do more testing like that, you’re going to come across more guys that are going to test positive.”
Some 33 players, including 10 Bulls, were in the league’s health and safety protocols Wednesday. And because of the recent surge, some teams are considering changing their attendance protocols. On Wednesday the Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Raptors announced they would limit attendance to 50% capacity again.
Is a league shutdown a viable option? ESPN reported Thursday that Premier League teams are pushing for games to be halted until the start of the second week in January. Meanwhile, NBA stars including Harden, Milwaukee Bucks center Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zach LaVine, NFL stars including Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield and Rams receiver Odell Beckham and NHL stars such as Patrice Bergeron were all unavailable to play after testing positive this week.
Fans who paid high ticket prices to watch their teams play would miss seeing some of their favorite players, albeit without a reduction in prices. Teams that might be on the cusp of a playoff spot might lose out by the end of the season because of playing short-handed now.
Even if the Bulls return to action Sunday against the Lakers, they would have little practice time under their belt. Would it be a fair matchup, or is it better to postpone and wait until the Bulls are healthy?
Meanwhile, NFL teams are entering the stretch run without some of their key players. Could the loss of Mayfield this weekend affect the AFC playoff race?
Every day brings a new wrinkle to the sports world’s constant challenge of responding to the latest COVID-19 news.
The only thing we’ve learned from 2021 is the much-anticipated “return to normalcy” was simply wishful thinking.