ATLANTA — The Knicks and Hawks were playing the game as if nothing was happening, and maybe to them it wasn’t, on the court, away from their phones. But the crowd knew, seeing the word that this game and the rest on Wednesday night would be the last ones to be played until further notice.
Wednesday night, after a game in Oklahoma City against the Utah Jazz was postponed because a player, reportedly Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the coronavirus, the NBA announced that the league’s schedule would be suspended.
The only other NBA game postponed Wednesday was a late-night matchup between the Pelicans and Kings in Sacramento.
In a statement, the league said, “The NBA announced that a player on the Utah Jazz has preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19. The test result was reported shortly prior to the tip-off of tonight’s game between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena. At that time, tonight’s game was canceled. The affected player was not in the arena.
“The NBA is suspending game play following the conclusion of tonight’s schedule of games until further notice. The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic.”
While so much remains unknown, the math on this is hard to ignore. It is not just the players on the Jazz and Thunder, all of whom were held in the arena long after the crowd was cleared out with the public address announcer stating that the game was called for “unforeseen circumstances,” and that, “You are all safe.” The Knicks hosted the Jazz last week and you can open up the NBA schedule and figure out all the permutations of the teams the Jazz played and then who those teams played, expanding out all of the possible exposures.
The Jazz released a statement saying a player — they did not identify Gobert — tested negative earlier Wednesday for flu, strep throat and an upper respiratory infection. That player’s symptoms diminished as the day went along, but the decision was made to test for COVID-19 anyway. That test came back with a preliminary positive result.
The NCAA announced earlier in the day that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played in arenas without fans other than families of the players, leaving an eerie sadness in place.
“The NCAA continues to assess the impact of COVID-19 in consultation with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “Based on their advice and my discussions with the NCAA Board of Governors, I have made the decision to conduct our upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance. While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States.
“This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes. We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families.”
Late Wednesday night, the Big East announced that the remainder of the conference’s men’s basketball tournament, which began Wednesday and continues each day through Saturday, will be played under a restricted attendance policy. Attendees will be limited to student-athletes, coaches, event staff, essential team and conference staff, television personnel, credentialed media and immediate family members of the participating teams. Schools will be limited to 200 tickets per institution.
“We have made this decision due to the rapid progression of COVID-19 and escalating developments nationally, as well as through guidance we have received from medical experts, local authorities and other sources,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said in a statement. “The support of our fans has made the BIG EAST Tournament one of the most exciting events in college basketball, but the health and well-being of our game participants is of paramount importance. We are very grateful to Madison Square Garden for their understanding and cooperation as we jointly manage a very difficult situation.”
But this, like just about everything happening right now, is a blind path for all involved, uncertain about what is happening and unsure about how to handle it.
There are 259 NBA games, roughly 21% of the schedule, left to play this season — and no one knows if, or when, things will resume.
Just before State Farm Arena in Atlanta opened the doors to allow the fans in for a game against the Knicks Wednesday night, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and Knicks interim coach Mike Miller were awaiting the word to come down from the league of what would be coming next.
Asked if he was concerned that Wednesday’s game might be the last in front of fans for the foreseeable future, Miller said, “I’m not that far ahead. Today this is what it is. If through our medical staff and the NBA we have different information that this is what we’re going to do then that’s what we’ll do.”
The decision ultimately may not have been in the hands of the league. The warnings have continued to escalate and Wednesday Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “The bottom line: It is going to get worse . . . We would recommend that there not be large crowds. If that means not having any people in the audience as the NBA plays, so be it.”
A day after a recommendation from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine that large crowds be avoided and the Columbus Blue Jackets saying that they would still play, DeWine said he would change it to an order, and the team announced that it would fall in line and play without fans.
In a statement, the NHL said, “The National Hockey League is aware of the NBA’s decision tonight to indefinitely suspend its season due to a player testing positive for the coronavirus.
“The NHL is continuing to consult with medical experts and is evaluating the options. We expect to have a further update tomorrow.”
Said the Knicks’ RJ Barrett: “We just have to do what’s best for everyone and what’s safe. It’s something that’s really spreading. I’m behind what they decide 100 percent.”
With Roger Rubin and Andrew Gross