Nightmare scenario: NBA in uncharted territory as coronavirus hits league


It’s almost impossible to keep things quiet in the NBA. Players and coaches have multiple press conferences on game days. With the touch of a finger on their smartphone, hundreds of front office executives and staffers can reach a reporter and get their message out. Just about every player has a social media platform to share what’s on their mind.

But on the topic of coronavirus, just about everyone went silent in recent weeks. In talking with executives, coaches and players around the league, the past couple weeks have been an exercise in uncertainty.

How bad is this virus? Would games be canceled? Could they be postponed? Could games actually be played with fans not permitted to attend?

All of these questions had complicated and largely unknownable answers. Almost every stakeholder stayed out of the public view and kept their thoughts private. Except for Tilman Fertitta.

On Friday afternoon, Fertitta, the billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets and Golden Nugget Casinos, joined CNBC’s Power Lunch program to discuss the coronavirus’ impact on the financial markets, the oil industry and of course, the NBA.

The face of the “Billion Dollar Buyer” cable TV show, Fertitta has certainly earned his right to speak on business matters. Fertitta is worth $4.9 billion, according to Forbes, and in 2017, bought the Rockets for a cool $2.2 billion. 

When asked on the show about whether the Coronavirus scare was impacting attendance, Fertitta took an opportunity to joke that “the only no-show was us last night against the Clippers. Our fans were all there.”

Fertitta went on.

“That’s what I like to see because we’re not panicking, and we shouldn’t,” Fertitta said. “And this is just my opinion: I would hope that we would just suspend for a week or two weeks. But you don’t want to play games with no fans. That’s never going to work.”

Four days later, at roughly 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday afternoon, the Golden State Warriors announced that they would play its March 12 game against Brooklyn with no fans inside Chase Center. 

It was the first sign that the coronavirus situation was starting to unfurl, but it was far from the last domino to fall Wednesday.

By 9:30 p.m. ET, the NBA announced it was suspending the season. An NBA player had tested positive for the coronavirus. Sources confirmed that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was the infected player. 

“The N.B.A. will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the league said in a statement.

The question on everyone’s mind: How and when did Gobert get infected? 

We may never know the exact details. The NBA is a cross-pollination league with teams jetting around the country for multiple games a week. We’re about to find out just how tangled that web really is and why this virus is so terrifying for the parties involved.

* * *

On March 5, much of the NBA world descended upon Boston. I was among them.

It was time for the 14th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which draws hundreds of sports media and top executives from all around the world for the two-day event. The Sloan Conference, co-founded by Rockets GM Daryl Morey, has become a tentpole networking event in the NBA schedule sandwiched between the All-Star Weekend in February and the NBA combine in May.

Top executives from the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Rockets were set to speak at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this year. Players such as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown and Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter were also scheduled to attend. Media from just about every national outlet was expected to be present.

But on that Thursday night, concern rippled among the attendees following an ominous public announcement from MIT: 

“Effective immediately, if you are planning any in-person MIT event with more than 150 attendees that will take place between now and Friday, May 15, on campus or off campus, you must postpone, cancel or “virtualize” it.”

Panic began to set in. Attendees quickly pinged each other about whether to make the trip. Eventually, word trickled in that the Sloan Conference -- with over a thousand attendees expected -- would be an exception to the decree. Friday and Saturday’s events would go on as planned, despite MIT’s alert on Thursday night.

And so Friday’s events kicked off with a full slate of panels beginning at 8 a.m. ET and ending at 6:15 pm ET. Hundreds and hundreds of rows of seats would be occupied by attendees, most of them packed close together. In hallways, people awkwardly elbow-bumped each other in lieu of handshakes. Convention workers wiped down handrails on escalators and door handles throughout the day. 

Following a dozen panels on the first day of Sloan,, a horde of NBA media hopped in Ubers and traveled across town to cover the Boston Celtics’ Friday night game.

Boston’s opponent?

The Utah Jazz.

Gobert played in that game and finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 33 minutes. It’s not clear if Gobert was infected or contagious at that point. But the NBA’s new media rules, which banned media in locker rooms as a temporary precaution, wouldn’t go into effect until days later on Monday. At that point, the media was free to visit with players in the locker room. 

And visit they did. At least one Sloan attendee talked directly to Gobert up close on Friday and possibly more. After that game in Boston, Gobert and his Utah teammates flew to Detroit and the writer returned to his hotel ahead of the next day’s slate of Sloan events.

On Saturday, the conference went on as planned, with several attendees having been around the Jazz the night before and mingling with the hundreds of conference-goers the very next day. By nature, a conference is a networking event, a chance for strangers to get to know each other, exchange business cards, shake hands and travel back home. But now, it feels like something very different.

The Jazz played the Pistons on Saturday night. They played the Toronto Raptors on Monday in Utah. They were supposed to play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday before the game was called off at the last moment.

On Wednesday night, the Raptors told their players to self-quarantine for 14 days, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. The Celtics, the team that hosted Gobert's Jazz, were also told to self-quarantine, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

And now all I can think of is those thousands of people at those games and at the conference. Surely, they’re wondering the same thing I am: When did Gobert become infected? Am I next?

* * *

It’s far too early to speculate about when the NBA will resume games, if at all this season. The NBA is in full-blown information gathering mode. The scope of the spread may not be known for days or even weeks.

On Wednesday, the NBA discussed with the Board of Governors the plan going forward in case the situation escalated, deciding whether to play in empty arenas or go on a temporary hiatus. Leading up to that meeting, I spoke with one of the Governors about the possibility of playing in empty arenas for the rest of the season in light of the Warriors’ announcement. The long-time executive downplayed that likelihood.

“We will move games to neutral courts in Idaho where there aren't any cases before we went to a nuclear option,” the high-ranking team official said, who wasn’t authorized by the league to speak publicly on the issue.

Obviously, things have changed.

As a rule of thumb, the source said, the NBA makes an average of $1.2 million in gate revenue per regular season game and $2 million for each playoff game. With 259 of 1,230 regular season games remaining, that means roughly $300 million of ticket revenue lost if fans couldn’t purchase tickets. Over the past decade, on average, there have been 83 playoff games in each postseason, which would lead to another loss of about $166 million. 

That’s nearly $500 million in estimated lost ticket revenue if the NBA doesn’t allow fans to attend the full slate of games. But according to sources around the league, crowds were already dwindling with some teams seeing 60 percent the normal capacity on Wednesday’s games. 

Even if the NBA allowed fans to attend, would they?

* * *

We’re in uncharted territory here. At this point, there are way more unknowns than knowns as the NBA attempts to untangle the web.

But we do know that China and Italy have essentially shut down. It’s not out of the question that the United States, at some point, follows suit.

One person who has first-hand knowledge of the Chinese infection trajectory is Tilman Fertitta, whose global businesses have been greatly impacted by the coronavirus, which began spreading in early December in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. By late January, it reached Beijing. 

And now it’s in Fertitta’s league. 

“You just got to take care of yourself,” Fertitta said on CNBC. “There’s no reason to panic even when they announce that another 100,000 people have it, OK? People are going to get this. People are at home with it, just don’t go to work and you don’t give it to other people, don’t go to a ballgame and give it to other people. Everybody just needs to take care of themselves and we all need to have good habits right now.

“We’re going to find out every day that more people have this, but we’ve got to go on about our lives. But you’re not going to die from this. You can take your rarest diseases that you get in America and not as many people are going to die from the Coronavirus as die from these [rare diseases].”

It’s at this point, whether intentional or not, that the CNBC host cut off Fertitta mid-sentence and changed the subject to Fertitta’s restaurant businesses under his Landry’s empire.

Landry’s owns and operates more than 600 properties including Landry’s Seafood, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Morton’s The Steakhouse and McCormick & Schmick’s, among others. Some of them have locations in China. 

One such establishment is a Morton’s Steakhouse in Beijing located on the popular Jinbao street, a 220-seat restaurant that its website boasts “has become a venue of choice for many influential businessmen aiming to impress clients and the discerning new Chinese elite.” 

Fertitta was asked how his Chinese restaurant businesses were faring after a rapid spread that only hit Beijing less than two months ago. 

His answer is ominous for the NBA, which has only just begun this fight.

“Let me use just one word: bad,” Fertitta said while chuckling. “You know, it’s so funny. I’m going to tell you something funny, is the fact that -- and it’s not funny -- but we were finally able to reopen a Morton’s in Beijing the other day and this has never happened in all my 30, 40 years with any of my restaurants, but we (re)opened the restaurant …”

Fertitta continued.

“And the sales for the day were zero.”

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