How the NBA navigated its longest, most unpredictable year


An hour before the 2019 NBA Finals tipped off in Toronto — the first time the league’s showcase event had been played outside the United States — commissioner Adam Silver reminded those watching that basketball’s founder, James Naismith, was a Christian missionary who brought the game to China and Europe in the belief that it could be a common language.

Silver is a like-minded optimist who believes in the NBA as an instrument of soft power across the globe. He is a willing ambassador who spoke that night about the league’s foray into Africa and the Indian subcontinent, and its ever-expanding presence in China, where basketball can be used “maybe in the way pingpong was used in the days of Richard Nixon.” This is a core part of Silver’s message: Be they international borders or the realm of social media, the NBA loves tackling frontiers.

In the months that followed, the NBA would be rocked by a sequence of traumatic incidents, many of which have irrevocably changed the way it does business.

In the 2019-20 season, the outside world overwhelmed the NBA. For the first time, it had to adapt its growth strategy and the political posture of its power brokers. Even the way games are played — the where, when and how — was jeopardized by external crises, as the season will end inside a bubble environment in Florida almost a full year after its first game tipped off in Toronto.

A league that has reveled in its standing as a global enterprise was burdened by the weight of the world this season. Yet along the way, the NBA still showed its flair for the dramatic — Zion Williamson‘s theatrical debut, an unprecedented solution to safely playing during a deadly pandemic and one of the most unpredictable postseasons in history.

Here’s how we got to the doorstep of an NBA Finals that was anything but guaranteed.

Oct. 4: Daryl Morey’s Hong Kong tweet shakes a deep NBA relationship

Chris Wong first heard about Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet — “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong” — over Facebook Messenger from a close friend. Wong, a research scientist who relocated to Houston in 2011 from Hong Kong, is the city’s representative for Texas For Hong Kong, a pro-democracy organization. He was thrilled that a high-profile American in his new hometown would take an interest in his cause.

“I thought the Chinese government would do what they usually do — answer with criticism — because this is one executive with one team,” Wong said. “I never expected state media to threaten the NBA. Looking back, maybe it was inevitable. The team had close ties to China, and when Americans speak about a certain set of values China disagrees with, it will trigger a reaction.”

In the years since it first staked a presence in East Asia — the league opened an office in Hong Kong in 1992 — the NBA and its players were able to enjoy all the financial benefits of a huge, emerging market, without having to confront stickier questions about the principles that govern that market.

The NBA would now have to negotiate a major political incident that threatened its coffers while two of its teams — including one with its premier superstar, LeBron James — were in China for two scheduled preseason games.

A dizzying series of retaliations, disclaimers, quasi-apologies and statements followed in the subsequent days. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta tweeted that Morey “does NOT speak for the Houston Rockets,” adding that the franchise is “NOT a political organization,” a position that would be seriously challenged in the coming months, as it would be for the entire NBA.

After initially calling Morey’s tweet “regrettable,” the NBA issued a statement affirming its support for free speech and “living with the consequences” of that.

CCTV (China Central Television), the state-run network on the mainland, stopped airing NBA games, and it has yet to resume the broadcasts. Tencent (an ESPN partner) also suspended NBA games from its platform but resumed streaming two weeks later — though Rockets games are still banned. Chinese sponsors pulled out of partnerships with NBA teams, while towering images of NBA players such as James and Kyrie Irving promoting the Oct. 10 game between the Lakers and Nets were peeled off skyscrapers in Shanghai. Though there was speculation that Chinese authorities might cancel the game, it proceeded as scheduled.

When James returned to Los Angeles, he blasted Morey’s tweet as “misinformed or not educated about the situation” and Morey for not considering its negative ramifications. James’ comments riled activists, some of whom burned his jersey in Hong Kong.

Back in Houston, Wong helped organize activists in rallies at the Rockets’ first two regular-season home games on Oct. 24 and 26. Approximately 35 protesters demonstrated outside Toyota Center pregame, then held signs from their seats behind the south basket during stoppages. One banner read, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“I hadn’t done this kind of public protest in a stadium, and I didn’t know if it was the most appropriate thing to do at a basketball game because fans might not like it,” Wong said. “But I was surprised: People were very encouraging. They wanted to high-five us. They wanted to take pictures with us.”

Estimates of the NBA’s potential losses from the China fallout number at approximately $200 million in a market that until this season was found money, according to sources close to conversations about the league’s strategy in the country. Yet without a sense of when the NBA can reestablish partnerships with Chinese entities, and when games will again appear on CCTV, even the most informed minds can’t quantify the cost.

Wong said he appreciates that the NBA has spent decades promoting the game in China. He also admires the efforts of NBA players to fight for social justice. He would just like to see a more consistent approach across borders.

“If the NBA is encouraging players to seek out advocacy against racial injustice,” he said, “then they should also be encouraging for those who want to seek out advocacy against injustices all over the world.”

Jan. 22: Zion Williamson somehow exceeds the hype in long-awaited debut

Each time the ball found its way to Zion Williamson in his first NBA game, the hum in New Orleans’ Smoothie King Center built to a crescendo. When the Pelicans rookie, dared by the San Antonio Spurs, drained a straightaway 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, that buzz reached a roaring climax.

On the next possession, he elevated and spun for an alley-oop lob. On the one that followed, he hit another 3-pointer. Then he gobbled up a loose rebound off a miss. Even when he was rejected by Jakob Poeltl on the next trip down, Williamson promptly snatched the remains and flung the ball off the glass for another bucket. He then nailed another pair of 3-pointers, the second of which gave the Pelicans their first lead since the first quarter.

He scored 17 straight points for us,” said Alvin Gentry, who coached Williamson in his rookie year. “It was amazing.”

The value of the NBA is ultimately driven by athletic talent, which is why the excitement for Williamson’s arrival built for more than six months, compounded by delay. The debut of a prospect of Williamson’s potential is rare, because a Williamson isn’t released in every vintage. Try as the NBA might to showcase a No. 1 pick, he must be a true prodigy — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Shaquille O’Neal — to cut through.

From the moment he arrived at Duke in 2018, Williamson captured that promise. He looked different, moved different and had an irrepressible smile atop a 270-pound body. The combination of attributes while he darted around the court invited wonderment: How can agility and speed possibly exist in a body with that power and mass?

In Williamson, it existed brilliantly, but not without complication. In February 2019, he missed several games with a right knee sprain after his shoe … exploded … in a game against North Carolina. He exited his first Las Vegas Summer League game in July after only nine minutes with a bruised right knee. He played in only four preseason games before undergoing surgery to repair a torn right meniscus in October.

After months of recovery, caution, hype and anticipation, Williamson danced through his warm-ups for the first time in a regular-season NBA game, light on his feet as he buried jumpers and spun in midair to finish an alley-oop.

“I don’t like to compare something to a LeBron James,” Gentry said, “but his playing his first game created an atmosphere like that.”

During the 17-point explosion, the Pelicans’ Nicolo Melli jogged to the scorers table to check in, only to be pulled back. A couple of minutes later, Derrick Favors rose from the bench only to make the same round-trip return after Williamson sank another shot from long range. At certain moments, there are no suitable substitutes.

“It was tough to take him out, but it was the right thing to do,” said Gentry, who finally pulled Williamson with 5:22 remaining in the contest. “You can’t sacrifice short term for long term. You have to understand the consequences, and it was important to us to make sure he understood that.”

After Williamson took a seat, a resounding chant for his return pulsed through the arena. But no matter the demand, Williamson’s careful regimen wouldn’t be compromised.

The athletic wonder of an NBA superstar is still the league’s most compelling offering.

Jan. 26: Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others die in a helicopter crash

On a Sunday morning in January outside Los Angeles, a thick marine layer pushed its way across the back side of the Santa Monica Mountains into the far western edge of the San Gabriel Valley. Through the fog, a helicopter transporting Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven other people was making its approach to Camarillo Airport. Nearby is Bryant’s sports academy, where he was scheduled to coach Gianna’s game.

Clarizzah Macatugal was asleep at home in Carson, California, ignoring the constant pulse of her phone. In the early afternoon, her sister woke her up and said, “Kobe died,” then showed her the initial report of the helicopter crash that killed all onboard.

“My phone was blowing up,” Macatugal said. “But I didn’t speak to anyone the whole day.”

As she started to see images of Angelenos making pilgrimage to Staples Center to grieve, she asked her mother to pick up flowers.

Macatugal, 26, was born in the Philippines and raised on basketball from an early age before moving to Southern California at 5 years old. When asked to choose a number in a youth basketball league at age 8, she chose the corresponding number, which happened to belong to Bryant. From that day on, she began an intimate fan relationship with the Lakers star.

On Monday, Macatugal rose at 5 a.m. to make the trip to Staples Center before an 8 a.m. class at USC, where she is a physical therapy student. With the flowers bought by her mother the previous evening and wearing her Mamba-model jersey, she arrived at the site.

“The aura around it made me feel comfortable right away,” Macatugal said. “But I hadn’t spoken to anyone about [Bryant’s death], so when a reporter approached me to ask a question, I just started crying. I hadn’t spoken to anyone. I couldn’t.”

Mourners gradually flowed into the plaza across from Staples Center, where hundreds of bouquets and homemade memorials lined the perimeter. Macatugal needed to get to school, but she would return twice in the following days.

When she visited the site on Wednesday evening, this time in her maroon Lower Merion jersey, Bryant’s high school uniform, a Nerf basketball hoop was attached to one of the walls erected for visitors to scrawl condolences and memories. Fans were reenacting their favorite Kobe game winners — the 3-point bank shot fading to his left over Dwyane Wade in 2009, the jumper over Raja Bell in the 2006 playoffs.

“It felt a little bit more happier in a sense, because you’re around a lot of people who are like you,” Macatugal said. “These are all people who grew up as Lakers fans, who all loved seeing the Kobe memorials. We were all there for the same reason.”

Macatugal would return again on Friday night before the Lakers’ home game against Portland, dining with friends at Shaquille’s in L.A. Live to watch the tribute across the street. The restaurant felt like a communal table, all in attendance with rapt attention toward the televisions.

“Everyone in that restaurant was crying,” she said.

In the weeks that followed, more relics and offerings filled the plaza, more testimonials and well-wishes inscribed on the wall. The objects would finally be cleared following the Feb. 24 memorial service inside Staples Center.

Bryant was one of his generation’s most polarizing athletes. Some found him to be an ungenerous teammate and extreme narcissist. The circumstances surrounding his 2003 sexual assault case left lingering questions. But his global appeal is indisputable, and the devotion he commanded from so many was visceral.

A digital sticky note on Macatugal’s laptop remains a quote from Bryant: “When you make a choice and say, ‘Come hell or high water, I am going to be this,’ then you should not be surprised when you are that.”

“His work ethic and discipline inspired me,” she said. “I applied it to literally everything in my life — my school, my career. This is my motto.”

March 11: The NBA goes dark and others follow

During the second week of March, front offices around the NBA were grappling with the uncertainty surrounding the growing threat of COVID-19. Conversations had surfaced the previous month, during All-Star Weekend, and some people had floated the idea of playing NBA games in empty arenas, though the likes of LeBron James had rejected the thought.

On the morning of March 11, the Golden State Warriors announced they would play Thursday night’s home game without fans in San Francisco, a city being hit particularly hard by the virus. Yet beyond a few hot spots, most of the nation and the league hadn’t yet come to terms with the magnitude of the threat.

On a Wednesday night in Oklahoma City, fears met reality.

“The virus was creeping into everybody’s stream of thought,” said Rob Hennigan, vice president of insight and foresight for the Thunder. “It hadn’t seeped into the sport yet, but there was heightened vigilance, but we didn’t yet have a sense of exactly what would happen that night.”

Nothing about the Thunder’s home date with the Jazz that evening was a departure from the norm. Player introductions proceeded as usual, then players spent their final moments before tipoff working off their final shards of nervous energy.

Down in the Thunder’s basketball operations office at that moment, team president Sam Presti received a call. A Jazz player had tested positive.

Presti turned to Hennigan and vice president of human and player performance Donnie Strack.

“Don’t let them tip the ball,” Presti said.

Strack and Hennigan had no more than two minutes to race through the bowels of Chesapeake Energy Arena and onto the court.

“It was a dead sprint,” Hennigan said. “And Sam asked two of the slowest, least athletic people in the organization to do it.”

With a few seconds to spare, Strack and Hennigan stormed the court, beelining to officiating crew chief Pat Fraher and imploring him to delay the opening jump ball. For a few awkward moments, perplexed players tried to glean information, and fans peered down at their phones as head coaches Billy Donovan and Quin Snyder were briefed on the situation. The teams were then sent back to their respective locker rooms. After approximately half an hour, a message appeared on the arena video screen: “Per the NBA, tonight’s game has been postponed.”

News rippled across the league. In Dallas, a murmur spread throughout the building in the third quarter when word hit that the season was suspended. The Mavericks and Denver Nuggets were the last teams to complete their games, with the Pelicans-Kings game in Sacramento suspended indefinitely.

“That night was an inflection point, for the sports and entertainment world, and the country,” Hennigan said. “This wasn’t the first time we were hearing about the virus, but it was a string weaving everything together.”

With one stroke, the NBA set into a motion a national mobilization effort that changed American life. The spectacle of the situation in Oklahoma coupled with the significance of the decision prompted businesses big and small to trigger their own courses of action.

Later that night, the league announced that Jazz center Rudy Gobert was the NBA’s first player to test positive for the coronavirus. On Thursday, Donovan Mitchell disclosed on Instagram that he too had tested positive. In short order, several teams were ordered to self-quarantine.

For the next several months, the NBA would hemorrhage hundreds of millions of dollars and have to explore radical and unprecedented solutions to prevent further losses. As was the case with the rift with China in October, COVID-19 was another external event that penetrated the NBA. A league that maintains meticulous control over its operations was invaded by a force of nature that rendered all its careful planning powerless.

July 30: The NBA season resumes after a bubble is built

The enormity of the task was incomprehensible. The league would build a campus outside of Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to host 22 NBA teams and hundreds of others for as long as four months. That campus would need to abide by airtight medical protocols to prevent the invasion of the most aggressive pandemic in a century. It also would need to provide an infrastructure to accommodate a massive basketball operation that normally exists across nearly two dozen state-of-the-art training facilities. Official regular-season games resumed on July 30, but the true restart of the season took place more than a month before, as the league hurried to construct this city.

Kelly Flatow, the executive vice president and head of events at the NBA and a 10-year veteran of the league, has organized some of the biggest spectacles in sports, including the league’s All-Star Weekend. But the so-called bubble resides in an entirely different logistical universe for an entirely different length of time under an entirely unprecedented amount of scrutiny.

The health and medical specifications were priority No. 1 for the league. Players and team staff would spend two days quarantined in their hotel rooms and be tested for the virus daily. A precious few essential personnel would have access to the playing court. But in addition to adherence to the strict protocols, the success and execution of the remainder of the season and playoffs would depend on hundreds of granular tasks.

One of the first items on Flatow’s interminable to-do list: building practice courts for those 22 teams.

“This was one of our first and one our biggest infrastructural challenges,” Flatow said. “We had to determine how to find and create space for seven practice facilities, complete with state-of-the-art weight rooms and training rooms.”

That was just the beginning. Each team needed at least four baskets for practice, and ceiling height had to be at least 23 feet. Then there were the courts themselves. Park resorts don’t tend to have regulation basketball hardwood lying around. Flatow’s team managed to track down courts in Orlando, Miami and Indianapolis. It took 14 semitrucks to transport them to the bubble.

Teams started arriving on July 7, and soon after that, Flatow was leading tours of the practice and broadcast courts for players, coaches and executives to make sure the courts were up to their standards. The league’s analytics folks were busy creating an algorithm that ensured each team had equitable practice slots and amenities in service of competitive fairness.

Players sauntered around the court, some putting up shots to determine whether the lighting was to their liking at different spots. Chris Paul took in a demo of the virtual fans and suggested to Flatow that the digital representations of players’ friends and families be shown behind the team benches so that when they checked out of the game, they could look up and see their loved ones.

The bubble wouldn’t be merely a workplace but a home. A distribution center would be built to handle approximately 40,000 packages over the course of nearly three months.

“The immediate priority is ensure that our medical protocols were well communicated across all of the various people that are on site,” Flatow said. “But comfort is important for elite athletes — eating, sleeping, hospitality. We want the environment to be positive. “

Disney engineers went to work building dozens of 96-inch beds for players 6-foot-8 or taller. A barbershop would be available on each of the three resort properties where players would be staying, as well as hair braiders, nail technicians, pickleball courts, video game consoles and pinball machines.

“Microwaves were in really high demand,” Flatow said. “Smoothies are also very important.”

No environment is perfect, and the security and containment that guaranteed the health of those spending months on campus also challenged the mental health of some players. Isolation, even among teammates in the semi-familiar rhythm of a basketball season, can tax the psyche.

But reviews from the bubble were overwhelmingly positive from players, coaches and executives. When the season resumed, games were rolled out nearly 12 hours a day, with a production quality that exceeded the expectations of the teams participating. Despite a hiatus of nearly four months when few players could approximate their normal workout regimens, the quality of play has been elite.

The legacy of the bubble as a logistical and medical marvel will be interesting to consider once the campus is disassembled and the world returns to normal. But an event that many viewed skeptically as too enormous to pull off in such a narrow window of time has become a way of life for a community of athletes that demands perfection from themselves and those who employ them.

Aug. 26: The Bucks walk out on a playoff game in protest

“It wasn’t planned,” Milwaukee Bucks forward Sterling Brown said. “It was spur of the moment.”

Ten minutes before the scheduled tipoff of Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic, the Bucks’ half-court was empty — no layup line and no last-minute stretching. Every member of the Bucks’ roster and coaching staff was still back in the makeshift locker room deliberating.

Since video surfaced the previous weekend of Jacob Blake being shot seven times by a Kenosha, Wisconsin, police officer, the Bucks had been reeling emotionally. The site of the incident took place less than an hour from the team’s home arena, and it hit with particular force.

The conversations and expressions of disgust had been going on since the death of George Floyd on May 25 prompted some NBA players to consider whether they should resume the NBA season at all. As far back as June, Bucks guard George Hill revealed that he had misgivings about restarting the season at a time when basketball was of lesser concern.

The Bucks met before practice to share feelings and thoughts about events swirling outside the bubble. Several players, including veteran Wesley Matthews who took a leadership role over the course of the week, spoke about the power of the moment. Assistant coach Darvin Ham discussed having two sons roughly Blake’s age for whom he feared.

“We felt it personally, because it was close to Milwaukee,” Brown said. “And many of us have friends and family who have been through the system, who have been beaten by police. We were fed up, and knew we needed to bring more light to this situation, and that there’s a lot of work to be done outside that room.”

Brown had a direct and horrifying experience in January 2018, when he was thrown to the pavement, arrested and tased in a Milwaukee drug store parking lot. Four months later, Brown filed a suit against the Milwaukee Police Department for wrongful arrest and excessive force. He rejected a $400,000 settlement offer on principle, preferring to use the incident to bring awareness to the issue of police brutality.

Following practice, players insisted that the issues surrounding the incidents wouldn’t be a distraction as they took the floor the next day. Now, one day later, Hill had woken up and realized that simply wasn’t the case. He asked himself whether it was right to take the floor that afternoon to play basketball, and with each hour as the game approached, the answer was increasingly no.

The Bucks arrived at the arena a couple of hours before tipoff, players claiming their respective 15-minutes slots for individual warm-ups. Back in the locker room, Brown learned of Hill’s decision and engaged him. Hill told Brown that he had reached a certain point, and as a matter of principle, simply couldn’t take the floor. Brown immediately found head coach Mike Budenholzer and asked him to step outside the locker room area.

“It’s wrong for George to sit out by himself,” Brown told Budenholzer. “I’m going to sit out with George, and I want to present it to the guys now.”

Budenholzer pledged his support. Just before the team’s pregame film session, Brown addressed the group. He said he would sit out with Hill.

“I made clear I would have nothing but love and respect for anyone who plays,” Brown said. “I don’t want to make anyone pick and choose. It’s not like that; there would be no love lost.”

The Bucks conveyed they each felt the same way and would join in protest. There would be no pregame film session and, ultimately, no Bucks player would take the floor that afternoon. In a matter of hours, the other teams scheduled to play on Wednesday would follow suit, as would athletes across multiple sports leagues in the coming days.

Before leaving the arena, Hill and Brown read a statement on behalf of the Bucks team, which stood behind them, demanding accountability for the incident in Kenosha and urging the Wisconsin state legislature to enact meaningful criminal justice reform.

“What we did was needed,” Brown said. “We turned a lot of heads. We were able to talk to key people in the state of Wisconsin and the country.”

On the eve of the 2020 NBA Finals, the league still doesn’t know when it will begin next season and where those games can be played. Franchises don’t know whether those games will be attended by paying customers, which could mean considerable revenue losses for the NBA. And because these potential losses aren’t yet calculable, neither front offices nor players have reliable salary-cap projections. The league also hasn’t resolved a festering conflict with its top international market.

The success of the bubble experiment to this point has demonstrated the league’s resilience. That’s something that will be needed as the NBA’s most tumultuous season gives way to its most uncertain.

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