Editor’s note: This is the Thursday, June 25 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
How many is too many?
It’s a difficult question that, unfortunately for the NBA, has many permutations as the league attempts to get its July 30 restart off the ground at Walt Disney World Resort. While there is an exhaustive memo about the various testing procedures and safety protocols to create a “safe” campus relatively insulated from the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a few discouraging rhetorical questions that could shake the entire foundation of this effort.
Here’s a few to start:
1. How many COVID cases in Florida’s Orange County is too many?
While a theoretical bubble means that the NBA shouldn’t have to worry about the surrounding area, the NBA has made it clear that the campus at Disney will not be a bubble. The league’s CBA makes it difficult to fully restrict the movement of players, and while leaving the campus will be heavily regulated and essentially disciplined with days of quarantining and testing, it won’t be forbidden. The NBA will also have Disney workers (which we will get to in a moment) who are allowed to come and go. Even though their access to players and staff will be heavily restricted, there will always be a risk factor, even if it’s slight.
This means there are built-in perforations in the bubble, which means it matters how many COVID cases are in the surrounding area. Orange County is a hotspot in Florida, which itself is seeing one of the steepest rises in COVID in the country. Not only is Orange County adding hundreds of new cases per day, it is also seeing an uptick in the percentage of positive tests, which is an indicator that increased testing is not necessarily the biggest factor of increased case count — there is just a higher rate of infected people.
2. How many Disney cast members who contract COVID or strike is too many?
Related to the previous point: Disney Cast members are the X-factors in this situation. While people within the inner tiers of the NBA restart will be rigorously tested in multiple ways and aggressively isolated if they test positive, the NBA doesn’t have that kind of control over the theoretical thousands of workers who will help staff the hotels, arenas and other areas the league will occupy for more than three months.
One concern has to be COVID cases, which could proliferate if the virus manages to infiltrate the campus via a Disney worker. But another is just how much the workers themselves are willing to put up with. Workers and members of the public have been signing petitions by the thousands to push back the opening of various Disney parks over escalating COVID concerns. This is already resulting in Disneyland in Anaheim pushing back its start date. Union officials are continuing to pressure Disney leadership, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
While the season doesn’t restart until July 30, Disney workers will be required as early as July 7, when teams begin to arrive en masse (if not before that to prepare for their arrival). This issue can’t be put off as long as you might think.
3. How many players who sit out is too many?
Obviously losing Avery Bradley for the restart is a tough blow for the Lakers. But the league-wide view has to be more existential. How many players need to sit out before two problems occur: teams are hobbled beyond the point of competing with a combination of replacement players and COVID cases (see the cluster around the Sacramento Kings at this very moment), and how many players sitting out would dramatically affect the integrity of the postseason?
So far, only four players have definitely confirmed they’re sitting out: Bradley, Trevor Ariza, Davis Bertans and Willie Cauley-Stein. But those absences portend the potential for more, as family, health and other consequences become more sharply apparent. In general, players don’t wish to spend months away from their families. They don’t want to be locked down in one hotel room for more than three months. Some of them have publicly questioned whether concentrating on basketball, at a moment when progress on racial equity seems more attainable than ever, is wise. There are a lot of factors that could potentially sway players from participating — the only ones that lay on the other side of the equation are money and a shot at a championship, and not everyone has a real shot at a championship.
While a postseason played in a bubble site shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an “asterisk” season for a year that has been a nonstop roller coaster ride of chaos, there will be an asterisk if the league is forced to play without a significant amount of its players. It’s worth wondering if there could be a tipping point where players start realizing it is more appealing to stay at home than go play eight regular season games and maybe make a playoff run under extremely restrictive conditions. In cases like Bradley’s, where his oldest child potentially wouldn’t be able to join him for health reasons, it’s very understandable. The NBA is trying to meet a bottom line, but for some players who already have resources, the check isn’t enough of a call to put life on hold for a few months.
These are just a few of the hypotheticals that should trouble the NBA as it tries to progress toward something resembling normal competition. The Athletic released a survey on Wednesday of 10 general managers, at least three of whom were skeptical and “pushing for significant change.” It’s hard to see exactly how that unrest will die out as long as COVID cases keep rising and key stakeholders are forced to wonder if the sacrifice and risk are truly worth it.
THE DECISION, 10 YEARS LATER
On Sunday, ESPN will air “Backstory: The Decision” which takes a fresh look at LeBron James’ infamous television special in 2010 that made him a villain almost overnight. Without the trappings of recency bias, The Decision now looks like a moment that helped shape a trend of athlete empowerment that dramatically impacted the NBA and other sports leagues.
Don Van Natta Jr. revisits the special through the lens of ESPN and ABC officials who helped air it, as well as journalists and observers of the time (notably, it doesn’t seem to include LeBron’s participation, or that of his inner circle). While it’s odd to watch ESPN tackle the missteps of its own programming, such as Jim Gray’s awkward attempts to string along suspense and James’ evident discomfort with the setup, Van Natta doesn’t really hold back on how key architects of the special convinced themselves it would be better received than it was.
The program makes clear that some very influential figures opposed it: David Stern, LeBron’s then-agent Leon Rose and influencer Worldwide Wes. ESPN’s John Skipper pushed it forward — he says in his interview he thought “it would be good for business” — even though ESPN and ABC controlled very few of the details. Van Natta reveals that even those in the broadcast control room were like the rest of the viewers, with one crew member shouting at a screen: “Oh my God, get to it already!”
But the passage of time makes it easier to parse a few other issues, like the backlash outside of Cleveland where LeBron was the local darling. In the current light of social issues, it’s easier to understand the perspective some journalists interviewed have, which is that there were racial overtones to how the general public disapproved of LeBron’s sense of self-determinism. At the time, few athletes were willing to lavishly tout their free agency to that degree (and it’s worth reminding folks that the special raised millions for Boys and Girls clubs), but James’ first awkward steps into this arena have helped normalize that process for other athletes who wish to have more choice in their futures.
While there are few stones overturned in “Backstory” that haven’t already been examined, it’s an illuminating hour-long piece into an hour-long special that was probably a misstep, but has rippled out into something much more significant in the years since. The program airs Sunday on ESPN at 6 p.m. PST.
LEBRON’S LATEST VENTURE
The King’s business empire continues to gain steam: Bloomberg Business reported Thursday that $100 million in investments is fueling a new enterprise, the SpringHill Company, which consolidates James’ other companies SpringHill Entertainment and Uninterrupted along with a marketing company Robot Co. With the investments that were secured in March, James and business partner Maverick Carter have designs on creating media to empower diverse voices, they told Bloomberg. Forthcoming media projects include the Space Jam feature set to come out next year, and the company recently formed a Disney partnership.
We’ve written before about the scope of LeBron’s business ambitions — the SpringHill Company brings them under one roof.
— Kyle Goon
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