THE UTAH JAZZ were moments away from tipping off against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 11, 2020. A positive COVID-19 test from center Rudy Gobert abruptly halted the game, and the official announcement that night said the league was going on hold “until further notice.” At the time, league insiders expected play to be halted for at least two weeks.
Two weeks turned into 20 as the season resumed July 30 in a bubble environment at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. A year later, half the league’s teams are still hosting games in empty arenas as the pandemic that has claimed more than 500,000 American lives persists across the country.
While some NBA players have personally battled the coronavirus, others cared for and lost loved ones. They shared their experiences with ESPN from a year that affected countless people in ways big and small.
“I FELT LIKE I was a step slow,” Jrue Holiday said.
The Milwaukee Bucks guard had just played in his first game after a 10-game absence due to COVID-19. He scored just two points, his fewest in more than four years, and admitted after the Bucks’ Feb. 28 win over the LA Clippers that his conditioning was “a little behind.”
“With the symptoms, [coronavirus] was kind of miserable, just the body aches and chills,” Holiday said. “That’s not ever fun, but I guess I just really tried to keep my mind occupied.”
Holiday spent more than two weeks quarantined away from the team, trying to remain supportive, and staying connected via calls, texts and FaceTime. The Bucks won the first game Holiday missed, then dropped five in a row. However, they rebounded to win the last four games before his return.
“This is gonna sound weird, but I think it was a good thing,” Holiday said of the time away from the team. “I feel like it gives a chance for other people to step up. And that kind of shows the type of team we have.”
Holiday said he followed all NBA protocols this season and has taken extra precautions off the court to keep his family safe, in part because his wife, Lauren, is a cancer survivor. He remains unsure of how he contracted the virus.
“Don’t know how. Don’t know where. Just thankful that nobody else got it on the team,” Holiday said. “My family was safe and nobody got it. I quarantined by myself for like 11 days or something. So I had symptoms and it wasn’t fun, but I’m glad that everybody’s OK and I’m OK now.”
IT TOOK SEVEN months, but Gary Payton II is finally experiencing bubble life in Orlando.
The 28-year-old had re-signed with the Washington Wizards in December 2019 and started 17 games before the NBA season was put on hold. In July 2020, Payton and Thomas Bryant were the first reported cases of coronavirus within the Wizards organization and instead of re-taking his place in the starting lineup, Payton spent two weeks in quarantine in his Las Vegas home. He described feeling “flu-like symptoms” with a runny nose, chills for three days and a loss of appetite.
“My body is still healthy, but I did the right things by taking the precautions,” he said. “It’s an opportunity missed, but I’ll just go out there and make another one.”
With his NBA return over after the tumultuous 2019-20 season, Payton was selected 15th in the January 2021 G League Draft by the Toronto Raptors’ affiliate, Raptors 905. And once inside the G League bubble in Orlando, he averaged 10.8 points and 2.5 steals per game in 13 regular-season games, while getting advice from his Hall of Fame father on how to get back to the NBA.
“All his solutions is, ‘Go get the ball and just score as many points,'” Payton said with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘OK, dad. Second pick out of the draft, you were able to do that when you wanted to.’ We all didn’t become the No. 2 pick, but he’s always helping, [talking] with me after games and just talking basketball. So, he’s always bringing good vibes.”
INSTEAD OF COMPETING against the Washington Wizards on New Year’s Eve, Chicago Bulls teammates Lauri Markkanen, Tomas Satoransky and Ryan Arcidiacono were in a sprinter van en route to Chicago. The three players had been placed into the league’s health and safety protocols and were forced to enter self-isolation upon arriving home.
“Throughout the time, I was just quarantined in my apartment,” Arcidiacono said. “Two-bedroom, two-bath, a living room and a kitchen. So I couldn’t really do too much. I had a little yoga mat, couple bands, kind of like prison workout stuff, foam roller here and there. Couldn’t really get any cardio in, but I just tried to keep my mind as sharp as I could.”
Meanwhile, Chandler Hutchison remained in Washington after learning he had tested positive for COVID-19. He spent 10 days at a local hotel, fighting the symptoms.
“Kind of just basically a rough flu, started with a fever, chills at night, things like that,” Hutchison said. “You know, when you get hit by the flu pretty hard, it was kind of like that.”
Satoransky found out that he and a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 as well once they were back in Chicago. Satoransky had gone through a nine-day quarantine during the preseason after contact tracing put him near Noah Vonleh, who had tested positive. His concern was not for himself, but for his family, who all tested negative as he isolated.
“Obviously, when I knew that I’m positive, it was beyond frustration,” he said. “It was a difficult moment.”
In addition to Hutchison, Satoransky and Vonleh — who was released at the end of the preseason — Garrett Temple also tested positive in November.
Four members of the coaching staff missed a Dec. 26 game against the Indiana Pacers under the health and safety protocol. Chicago has had three games postponed so far this season.
“Without a bubble-type scenario, it was kind of an expected thing that this was going to be something that was going to circulate,” Hutchison said. “You see kind of how the different teams are being affected with it now throughout the season. I think that it was never something that we were — when they looked at the return to play, they said that it was just going to completely go away.”
LIKE OTHERS WHO grew up in Flint, Michigan, Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges was close to Kevelin B. Jones Sr. The pastor at Bountiful Love Ministries Church of God was a well-respected figure in the community and mentor to Bridges, particularly through the college recruiting process.
Jones Sr. was among the first people in Michigan to contract the coronavirus, testing positive on March 25. He was quickly admitted to the hospital and died just a day later.
In his honor, Bridges partnered with Josh Jackson of the Detroit Pistons and Terry Armstrong, who played last season in Australia, to sponsor families from the church this past Christmas, giving clothes, toys and shoes.
“[Pastor Jones] was really a big inspiration to me because I grew up and I was living [with Jones’ family] for a little while — for like a whole summer I was staying there,” Bridges said. “It was just a place for me to get away because he lived in the suburbs and I needed a getaway when I didn’t want to be in the hood to go there. They just treated me like family.”
Bridges shares a close bond with Jones’ son, Timothy, who also coached against him during his middle school days at Woodland Park Academy in Grand Blanc, Michigan, where he made his first dunk.
“It was heartbreaking,” Bridges said. “Every Christmas, I would see him giving out food, giving out presents and just the way he was as a family man, he made sure he took care of all his family members and they would all come together for the holiday. He just brought everybody together.”
As the Hornets look to contend for a playoff spot, Bridges keeps in mind that basketball is happening while the pandemic persists throughout the country.
“It’s definitely a lot of concerns,” Bridges said, “but I just want people to continue to stay safe, wear their mask and practice good habits.”
VICTOR OLADIPO WAS finally starting to feel like himself.
Six weeks earlier, he had returned from a ruptured quadriceps tendon. And after a slow start in his comeback (10.8 points per game in his first eight games of the 2019-20 season), Oladipo posted a season-high 27 points in a loss to the Boston Celtics on March 10. One day later, things were on hold again.
“I didn’t have the resources or the tools to be able to maximize my time,” Oladipo said. “We couldn’t go anywhere. I had to do it from a garage.”
When the NBA season finally resumed four months later, Oladipo was indecisive about returning. The coronavirus-induced hiatus had put his rehab and return process on hold, and the lack of access to team facilities during that break left him unsure about his readiness — both physically and mentally.
“I was dealing with trying to figure out, ‘Should I go? Shouldn’t I go?’ And it wasn’t that I was indecisive, it was [that] I didn’t know if I was ready,” Oladipo said. “I didn’t know if I was physically ready. … So, I didn’t really know what to do because I wanted to help my team, but at the same time I didn’t want to hurt them by being out there or hurt myself even worse.”
After first announcing in early July that he was opting out of the NBA’s restart, Oladipo reconsidered his decision and traveled with the Pacers to Orlando. Eventually, he made the decision to play the remainder of the season, averaging 16 points per game in six seeding games, then 17.8 points per game in the Pacers four-game playoff loss to the Miami Heat.
“I was not even close to 100 percent playing out there and you could tell, you could see it,” he said. “You could see it on my face, you could see it in my movements and everything I did, but I went out there and played and I’m actually glad I did.”
IN THE EARLY hours of March 24, 2020, David Turner fainted inside the bathroom of his family home in Colleyville, Texas.
“Hey, I need to go to the hospital,” David told his family after regaining consciousness a couple hours later.
On his son Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner’s 24th birthday, David entered Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford. Initially diagnosed with pneumonia, David tested positive for COVID-19 three days later.
“It was such an uncertain time because when he was affected with the virus I didn’t know what to think,” Myles said. “I didn’t know whether he was gonna make it or not. He had a situation where he fainted and wasn’t sure if he was gonna get back up. It was rough.
“Obviously, hearing the stories about it, we all panicked as a family.”
During his time in the hospital — spent alone, as COVID restrictions prevented his family from visiting — David lost 40 pounds. At one point his oxygen levels dropped to around 82%; normal levels are 95 to 99%. Eventually he was well enough to return home, though still dealing with symptoms.
“He got to the point where if he wanted to walk from the kitchen to his bedroom, he was out of breath,” Myles said. “He had to build his respiratory system back up; he had to build his tolerance back up as far as eating.”
Myles said his father has made a full recovery, and thanked the hospital by donating $50,000 to their COVID-19 response fund.
After witnessing what his father went through, Myles was skeptical of entering the NBA bubble in Orlando. But after doing research and getting advice from close friends and family, he committed to the 2020 restart and now the modified 2020-21 season.
“We’re not going out to restaurants. We’re not at clubs, lounges and we’re not out with a normal social life. So we take it very seriously,” Myles said. “Because you don’t want to be that one person that messes it up for everybody.”