Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 8, 2021

Adam Silver Rolls The Dice Again

It is too early to say if the NBA holding its All-Star festivities this season, albeit a version condensed into a single day and taking place without fans present, will prove to be a good idea from the perspective of the health and safety of the participants. As everyone involved readily acknowledges, the league descended on Atlanta this Sunday for an exhibition and some made-for-TV supporting events primarily because of the most ancient and powerful motivator of all, money. Still, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the surreal few days last March when sports came to a sudden stop, it seems appropriate that the National Basketball Association was the first league to attempt this symbolic return to the familiar.

After all, it was the Utah Jazz’s center Rudy Gobert who made headlines on March 9, 2020, when he purposely touched each microphone and recording device on the podium he stood at while fielding media questions about the team’s response to the coronavirus, an illness that was just starting to become part of the daily conversation for most Americans. Two days later, Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 even as the Jazz were getting ready to play a game against the Thunder in Oklahoma City. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who earlier in the day had discussed the possibility of limiting attendance at league contests with Players Association head Michelle Roberts, made the decision to call off the Utah-OKC game. Almost immediately after doing so, Silver was told that the officiating crew who had worked the Jazz’s most recent contest was about to take the floor for a game between New Orleans and Sacramento. As the cascading nature of potential exposure became apparent, Silver realized his league was facing a decision far more consequential than restricting the number of paying customers passing through the turnstiles of NBA arenas.

Other professional leagues, the NCAA, and thousands of school districts and youth organizations across the country were in various stages of evaluating the impact of the spreading pandemic and trying to chart a path forward. But the NBA pausing its season in the wake of Gobert’s infection opened the floodgates. Within 48 hours the rhythm of the sports calendar, that reliable backdrop to the lives of fans and the source of welcome diversion for millions, had ceased. Not long after that, the unhappy awareness that the ensuing silence was not going to end in a week or two began to creep into the minds of fans everywhere.

In just a few days the calendar will have come full circle, and we are of course nowhere near to what once upon a time was simply routine. Still, sports are back, though the staging of some events remains uncertain. Tokyo Olympics, anyone? Yes, no, maybe? Every bit as important, the games that are being held are starting to have at least some live witnesses. At long last, not all the cheers are piped through the sound systems of arenas and stadiums, and not all the faces in the stands are unblinking cardboard cutouts.

But along the way, through shortened seasons and tightly restricted bubbles and countless millions of empty seats, the cancellation of All-Star games was an easy decision for every league. After the bitter fight between players and owners over terms of the truncated 2020 season, teams were still getting ready to start play when the original July date for baseball’s Midsummer Classic arrived. With the occasional last minute scheduling shift and a few teams sometimes taking the field with less than competitive rosters, the NFL made it through its season and staged the Super Bowl before a small crowd at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, but calling off the Pro Bowl was a no-brainer. Similarly, the NHL, as it tries to navigate a season played in two countries with tight border restrictions still in place, has realigned teams and reduced the total number of games, complex work that made cancelling the 2021 All-Star Game an obvious call.

Still, some league had to go first, and last month commissioner Silver announced the NBA would be that league. The financial considerations are obvious – with NBA arenas either empty or just now beginning to admit a fraction of the usual attendance, teams are losing forty percent of their revenue stream this season, on top of losses sustained last year. The All-Star contest is a huge ratings draw, so staging it keeps the league in the good graces of its broadcast partners, and allows the NBA and the networks to springboard off the improved ratings that have accompanied this season’s broadcasts.

But while Silver is in Atlanta, most of the people who stand to profit from the game are not. The players, however, are required to be present under the terms of their collective bargaining agreement. While the league’s protocols had players taking private flights to the game and everyone staying in a mini-bubble environment, many NBA stars expressed their displeasure when plans for the game were announced. Multiple teams have had COVID outbreaks this season, and numerous games have been rescheduled. While no reminder of that was needed, only hours before Sunday night’s contest Philadelphia 76ers All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ruled out after being exposed to a barber who tested positive for the virus.

The show went on of course, an appropriate entertainment industry phrase for a game with no impact on the standings. Like other events that were once so familiar and are now longed for with such intensity, the NBA All-Star Game is a happy diversion for fans. We gladly welcomed it back, knowing that the basketball league has gotten so much right over the last year. But diversions are only worth so much. Let’s hope this doesn’t turn out to be the weekend the NBA’s luck ran out.

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