How Detroit Pistons plan to attack NBA’s strict COVID-19 season

Detroit Free Press

Omari Sankofa II
| Detroit Free Press

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After walking into an NBA arena for the first time in nine months Friday, the most surprising aspect wasn’t the new COVID-19 protocols for team personnel and media, or the absence of fans in the arena — those were anticipated changes the rest of the sports world has already embraced. 

What stood out was the loudness, and pervasiveness, of the music. The Detroit Pistons tipped off their preseason slate Friday, and it was their first live basketball game since their 2019-20 season ended March 11. Throughout the entire game and in the time leading up to it, Little Caesars Arena played the usual mix of top-40 rap hits and stadium classics. 

I, like much of the rest of the world, have been working from home and avoiding loud, public environments since mid-March. I’m not sure I had heard or even thought of “Yeah!” by Usher during the nine months leading into the game. But hearing it while the Pistons played the New York Knicks made me realize how much I missed those environments. 

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It was one of multiple steps the Pistons took to create something resembling a normal game day environment. John Mason, their long-tenured public address announcer, did his usual pregame introduction routine. Cheerleaders still danced in the stands. Fake crowd noise reacted after every made and missed shot. Eventually, it all melded into something resembling a basketball game in a normal year. 

Friday was the Pistons’ first test-run of what this abnormal, pandemic-impacted season will look like. They, like the rest of the NBA, are following extensive COVID-19 protocols that mandate daily testing and limit just about every aspect of the traditional routine. 

Head coach Dwane Casey said on a nightly basis, the Pistons will be battling two opponents — the rival NBA team, and the pandemic. 

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“Right now, our families have to make sacrifices on the road, at home, not being able to come to the home games,” Casey said after practice Saturday. “You make sacrifices not being able to go to the mall as much, or, going to get groceries. We have to all make sacrifices and be safe, because it takes one person to cause the game cancellation, practice cancellation or close the facility down.” 

The NBA is returning to play as the pandemic, which is getting worse by the day, is deeply impacting the NFL, college football and college basketball. Michigan football recently cancelled its annual game against Ohio State, marking the first time in more than 100 years the rivals haven’t played each other. Michigan State basketball head coach Tom Izzo tested positive for COVID-19 in early November, andthis week’s game against the Spartans and Virginia was canceled the night before it was scheduled to be played.

With the country setting records recently with 200,000 confirmed cases and 3,000 deaths per day, the pandemic is more widespread than when the NBA suspended play in March. The league is bracing for players and staff to test positive, and hopes outbreaks will be minimized if teams follow the protocols. 

“Is there uncertainty? Yes. I’m not uneasy about it,” Blake Griffin, who joined Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 vaccine taskforce, said Thursday of the looming season. “I think the NBA and NBPA have done a good job of putting together a plan that keeps us safe, first and foremost. It’s going to be a different experience. Going into it, no one knows what it’s going to be like.”

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The strict protocols will force teams to significantly alter their routine. Daily testing will limit when players can enter the arena before shootarounds and practices. Social distancing will prevent players from sharing meals at the practice facility, or from using team lounges and rec rooms. 

While at home and during road trips, players and staff will risk being penalized if they visit bars, clubs, public gyms or any indoor gatherings with more than 15 people. Teams will only be permitted to eat at restaurants that host either outdoor dining or have private space indoors. 

Through talking with NFL coaches, Casey learned many of their outbreaks resulted from team gatherings. It puts extra pressure on the Pistons to ensure they’re following all protocols while planning team meals during road trips — if they have them at all.

“We really have to make sure we’re careful, make sure the restaurants are vetted and it’s approved by the league, and make sure there’s proper spacing and that type of thing, because again, we have to be smart, we have to go with the protocols,” Casey said. “Even if it’s at the expense of a team meal, if we do have a team meal, I know our guys are working on it, to make sure that we have the spacing whether it’s four at a table, three at a table, just to make sure we’re going by our protocols.” 

Beyond the scope of visiting public spaces, players are preparing for potentially not seeing their families during the season. 

“The biggest challenge is probably going to be when guys go to cities where they have families,” Pistons center Jahlil Okafor said Saturday. “Like for myself, I’m from Chicago so usually when I go to Chicago I’m looking forward to seeing my entire family. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that. So I think that’s the biggest challenge, where guys are going to cities where they have friends and family there.” 

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So far, the Pistons have been spared. The Portland Trail Blazers and Knicks have already had to close down their practice facilities after positive tests. After Deividas Sirvydis clears the NBA testing protocols and joins the team, the Pistons will have a full roster. The challenge will be making it through the season unscathed. 

Until it’s safe to re-introduce the previous media standard, all league-mandated media access will be regulated to Zoom calls in an effort to keep players and media safe. 

The NBA pulled off a magic trick during its Orlando bubble, finishing last season in complete isolation from the rest of the world, and successfully keeping the virus out. It’ll now face the pandemic head-on. 

For everyone’s sake, hopefully the NBA is able to go two-for-two, minimize cases and crown a champion once again.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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