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The 2019-20 NBA season has been derailed by international conflict, tragedy, and a pandemic.
The season began with tensions between the league and China over a general manager's pro-Hong Kong tweet.
On January 26, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna died in a helicopter crash with seven other people.
In March, the NBA was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, pushing the league into uncharted waters, with no clear path back to playing.
Insider spoke with NBA sources including front-office members, coaches, players, and agents about their experiences throughout the rocky season and how to move forward.
As the clock wound down in the Miami Heat-Charlotte Hornets game on March 11, the Hornets were desperately trying to hold off a fourth-quarter surge from their opponents. But coaches and players on the benches began to realize that the commotion in the stands had nothing to do with what was happening on the court.
"No way! The game just got canceled!" fans yelled.
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They were referring to a matchup later that day between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz. Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first NBA player confirmed to have the virus. The NBA canceled the game, then it suspended the season minutes later.
That night's action was the last basketball for the foreseeable future.
It was the final twist in an already dramatic season plagued by controversy and tragedy. Though a summer marked by a free-agency frenzy had built excitement about an open path to the Larry O'Brien trophy, the season's beginning was overshadowed by a conflict with China that threatened the league's bottom line. Months later, Kobe Bryant's sudden death cast a pall over the NBA. Finally, an unprecedented global crisis brought play to a halt for the first time in NBA history.
"You definitely feel battered by the storm," said Milwaukee Bucks assistant coach Chad Forcier. "In 24 years in the NBA, I haven't experienced anything like this in terms of just one episode after the next."
The league is searching for ways to resume the season, but hurdles unlike any it has ever faced remain.
"I love, obviously, to play the game of basketball and always want to be on the court, but serious stuff is going on in the world right now," Houston Rockets guard James Harden told Insider.
What follows is an inside account of this whirlwind season, based on interviews with league sources including front-office members, coaches, players, and agents.
A tweet sparks an international crisis
A preseason game in Shanghai, China, offered Jared Dudley, a 34-year-old forward who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason, a chance to visit the country for the first time. He told Insider he was excited to see the sights, try the food, and watch fans' reactions to his superstar teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Instead, Dudley said, "I basically was stuck in the hotel for four days."
The isolation was part of the NBA's damage-control efforts after the Houston Rockets general manager, Daryl Morey, tweeted his support for protesters in Hong Kong.
Tim Warner/Getty Images
Morey's October 4 tweet sparked immediate backlash in China; fans there called for his firing. Though Morey apologized, the incident snowballed. The Chinese Basketball Association cut ties with the Rockets. Businesses ended sponsorships with the Rockets and the NBA. Chinese broadcasters announced that they'd stop showing NBA games. All of it damaged a profitable relationship the league had spent decades building.
The NBA's initial response — to call Morey's tweet "regrettable" — drew criticism from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike, who said the league was "kowtowing" to China to protect its bottom line.
The timing couldn't have been more awkward. The Lakers and the Brooklyn Nets were in China, ready to play. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver flew in to meet with the players, who expressed frustration at being placed in the middle of the crisis with an expectation that they would comment on it.
"Our opinions should not have been voiced in that situation," Dudley told Insider. "We're in another person's country, on their soil, playing a basketball game."
Zhang Hengwei/China News Service/VCG/Getty Images
The game ultimately went on as scheduled, and Silver later said the league would not police what its players say. But the economic consequences of the conflict with China have lasted: Silver said at the All-Star Game in February that the league could lose up to $400 million from the fallout.
"We accept the consequences of our system and our values," Silver told reporters at the time. "It's not a position any business wants to be in, but those are the results."
But frustration remains in some corners of the NBA.
"You're talking about a pretty significant loss of revenue. It impacts the bottom line for everybody," one NBA general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topics, told Insider.
Morey and the Rockets did not respond to a request for comment.
"The fact that nothing happened to him in light of all of that is insane," the general manager added. "The only business in the world where you could tank that much business and everybody would just say it's OK. I was actually dumbfounded by it ... Could you imagine an executive from Ford sabotages $1 billion of revenue and what, what happens?"
Dudley said that he understood the league's position but that the NBA's freedom of speech didn't apply to all situations.
"I could say whatever I want and [the NBA] absolutely could fine me for criticizing refs. I could be fined by my team if I get on a coach or other players — conduct detrimental to the team," he said. "Adam Silver is saying we have freedom of speech. Well, because of that freedom of speech, there's some ramifications. And the ramifications was money."
The sudden death of an icon
Despite the rocky start to the season, the basketball lived up to the preseason hype. The Golden State Warriors dynasty had been broken up. The Los Angeles Clippers and the Lakers were battling for supremacy. The Bucks began chasing one of the best records in NBA history. Young talent like Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, and Trae Young exploded onto the scene. Excitement for the playoff race was palpable.
Jessica Hill/AP Images
But on January 26, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and six other passengers got into a helicopter to fly to a practice at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California.
The foggy conditions in the area that morning had forced the Los Angeles Police Department to ground its helicopters.
After pausing its route for another helicopter to land, Bryant's helicopter changed directions and rose to 2,300 feet. As it made a descending left turn, the helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, missing a clearing by 20 to 30 feet. Bryant, Gianna, the six other passengers, and the pilot were all killed.
"I don't think we've ever had a death of someone who was so global, who means so much to one team, that passed away early, especially tragically," Dudley said.
The NBA games that Sunday turned into a public memorial. Fans gathered outside the Staples Center, joining in chants of "MVP," writing messages in chalk around the plaza, and leaving thousands of flowers and basketballs. Players paid tributes with messages on their shoes. They cried during warm-ups and postgame interviews. Teams held moments of silence. Several games started with eight-second backcourt violations and 24-second shot-clock violations, tributes to Bryant's jersey numbers.
Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Images
It's hard to overstate Bryant's impact on the league. Just as Michael Jordan influenced an entire generation of basketball players, Bryant was a beacon for many of today's players. Harden said he grew up watching the "Kobe era." One assistant coach told Insider that his team had a mix of veteran players who'd played with Bryant and younger players who grew up idolizing him. A general manager said several players on his team had every one of Bryant's signature shoes.
"People even to this day are still sad," Dudley said. "Still fresh in our minds."
David Zalubowski/AP Images
Some believed that playing that day was a tribute to Bryant's memory and competitive spirit — he would have wanted them to "hoop." But many players said they couldn't focus on basketball.
"I wouldn't have played any NBA games that day," Dudley said. "I think [Bryant] deserved that."
Inside the league office, uncomfortable questions were raised: If games were canceled for Bryant's death, what would happen when the next former player died? What if a current player died? Where did the league draw the line? Ultimately, the Lakers were the only organization that asked not to play — their marquee game against the Clippers on January 28 was postponed.
The shock of Bryant's death gradually subsided but never disappeared.
Kelvin Kuo/AP Images
"I feel like I'm still carrying it with me as it relates to the inspiration or the just intentionality through which I'm trying to live every day," Forcier said. "I don't think that makes me unique. I think there's a lot of people that still have that at some level of their consciousness."
COVID-19 preparations begin
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The US reported its first coronavirus case five days before Bryant's death, though it took many more weeks for the virus to touch the NBA directly.
Some of the league's early precautionary measures now look silly. Reporters were directed to stand at least 6 feet from players. Locker rooms were closed to the media. Players were told not to high-five fans or sign autographs.
"I was still high-fiving fans. I was still talking to my teammates," Dudley said. "I didn't take it as serious as you should have maybe."
Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Sources who spoke with Insider said they were preparing for the idea that games would be played without fans. But The Athletic's Sam Amick suggested, presciently, that things could get worse than that.
"All it takes is just one player, one coach, one staff member to get infected, and their entire $8-billion-per-year-in-revenue operation could be in jeopardy," he wrote on March 11.
Hours later, Gobert tested positive, and the season was put on hold. Teams that had recently played the Jazz were quarantined.
While Gobert was the NBA's first official case, the general manager who spoke with Insider believes his team — and others — might have gotten the disease earlier.
"We're probably pretty certain that every one of us in the NBA has had it, gotten through it, passed it, currently has it, whatever," he said. "Because it was in the country. You go back to the notion that it was in the country since the end of December, early January. Our team literally crisscrossed the country twice in that period of time. We travel together all the time. We go everywhere together. So as soon as anybody in the traveling party would have had it, we would have passed it around to each other."
Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
Officially, 10 NBA players have tested positive for COVID-19, though not all have been named. The Denver Nuggets and the Philadelphia 76ers said members of the organization had tested positive but did not specify who.
"I'd be shocked if there aren't more antibodies available within the NBA community than anywhere else," the general manager said.
Tests could eventually reveal whether that's true: The Associated Press reported on May 7 that the NBA asked players and teams to participate in a Mayo Clinic study on COVID-19 antibodies.
Returning to the court from quarantine
David Zalubowski/AP Images
After the NBA closed practice facilities, gyms, and training centers, players were on their own.
"Literally within minutes of me finishing my final workout, the league had sent out word that that was going to be off-limits starting today," Forcier said.
Teams sent players packages of workout equipment, including weights and bands. Some bought exercise machines. Harden said he had a treadmill, a set of weights and bands, and access to a basketball hoop.
"My setup is actually very well put together," he said.
But not all players can access courts. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum have said they didn't shoot a basketball for much of the suspension. The veteran NBA agent Mark Bartelstein said some players had been doing sprints in their backyards, though others live in apartments without outdoor space.
"You're not going to ever be able to replicate an NBA workout," Bartelstein said.
"Individually working out and then playing actual five-on-five where there's contact, and there's a split decisions that have to be made, it's totally different," he said. "I'm trying my best."
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The NBA, like most other facets of society, is searching for a way to come back. There's money to be made — a sizable consideration given the business losses in China and, to date, two months of unplayed games.
"That's the hundred-million-dollar question," Bartelstein told Insider. "A lot more than that." (Indeed, FiveThirtyEight suggested the NBA could lose as much as $1 billion if it can't resume the season.)
It's unclear what's possible. One oft-discussed proposal is the "bubble," in which the league relocates to one area, like Las Vegas or Disney World, to play out the remainder of the season. Players, coaches, and staff would be quarantined between games and tested frequently. But there are several obvious hurdles, including test availability, doubts about whether quarantines could be maintained for hundreds of people, and the personal sacrifices players would have to make, like not seeing their family for weeks.
"I think players will understand because of the financial ramifications," Dudley said.
The league, however, has mostly moved past the idea. For now, its wait-and-see stance remains; Silver has said the NBA won't need to decide until June.
"The major question is when can it be in everyone's best interest to be able to be in large groups without contracting or spreading this virus?" the NBA agent and former player B. J. Armstrong said. "Playing, at this point, to me, is not even — that's not even at my forefront right now."
Armstrong added, "The last thing, honestly, I'm thinking about is the games right now."
Dudley has doubts about whether the season can resume.
Jeff Chiu/AP Images
"Gut feeling's no," he said, but added that a canceled season would be the biggest "what-if" of his career.
"What if we didn't have this pandemic? What if we could have won a championship?" he said, adding, "Obviously, there's stuff that's more important, but it would be the what-if moment in my life."
Top players like James, Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry are leading a group focused on finding a way back to the court, Yahoo reported earlier this month. And according to ESPN, teams expect the NBA to deliver instructions in June on how to get players back into markets and practice facilities.
Harden said that at this point, given the lingering uncertainty, he's still unsure of how to think about the season.
"Honestly, I don't know," he said. "It just depends on how the season finishes."
Assuming it can actually finish, the general manager said, "the ending's going to be the best."
"It's been the craziest year I've ever seen," he added. "I think it'll be the most climactic end of the season we've ever had."
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