How the Detroit Pistons successfully navigated an unpredictable COVID season

Detroit Free Press

For more than two decades, Jim Scholler has been a professional athletic sports trainer. That includes a 13-year stint with the NBA, including 10 years with the Grizzlies before joining the Detroit Pistons in 2018.

This past season, Scholler added a new title to his job — one that he didn’t previously go to school for. The Pistons made him their designated testing officer, and his new responsibility was to help run the organization’s daily COVID-19 testing operation.

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At around 6:30 a.m. every day, he would go through the previous day’s test results for players, coaches and staff members and make sure they all came back negative. Then there was the process of actually getting everyone tested, which could four to five hours each day.

Scholler, along with the rest of the Pistons, saw firsthand just how much the coronavirus pandemic could shift the NBA’s usual routine and potentially endanger its employees. He witnessed the NBA’s initial shutdown on March 11, 2020 when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus. The Pistons played the Jazz on March 7, and former Pistons forward Christian Wood would eventually test positive on March 14. Head coach Dwane Casey and team scout Maury Hanks would also test positive, with the latter being hospitalized with the virus before recovering in April. 

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More than a year later, Scholler said he had no idea what would eventually come after March 11 — a nine-month hiatus for the Pistons, a bubble in Orlando to conclude the 2019-20 season, and a 2020-21 season guided by a 200-page book of health protocols to help teams avoid outbreaks. He knows far more about the mechanics of testing than he thought he ever would, and can explain the different types of COVID tests, the specificity of those tests, the cycle threshold of a COVID patient, and so on.

“It’s been pretty eye-opening and I would say that myself and the other medical staff across the NBA, we got a crash course in infectious disease and COVID over this last season,” Scholler said.

The 2020-21 season is now done for the Pistons, and for those within the organization, it was an extended exercise in learning and adapting on the fly. Several teams nearly saw their seasons derailed by the virus, despite the long list of safety protocols in place. While they had their schedule altered by outbreaks by other teams — a seven-player outbreak within the Washington Wizards led to their Jan. 13 game against Detroit being postponed, for example — the Pistons managed to get through the entire season without a player testing positive.

There was also an internal scare, as a false positive test ahead of their Feb. 1 game against the Denver Nuggets led to that game being postponed. Head coach Dwane Casey later said the test result was inconclusive, and the player in question later tested negative. With the season over, the Pistons can’t help but feel relieved. And a little lucky.

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“We were really fortunate to get through with no positive cases,” Scholler said. “That’s a goal of mine and the medical staff to get through this season without any outbreaks. You need a little bit of luck to get that to happen, and you need a lot of compliance. And we were really fortunate.”

From keeping team personnel and employees safe to eventually hosting a limited number of fans in the stands, the Pistons and Olympia Entertainment, which manages Little Caesars Arena, had to make numerous adjustments to keep everything running as safely and smoothly as possible. Here’s how it went down.

A successful pandemic season

After months of uncertainty over whether the 2020-21 season would be played, the NBA outlined an extensive list of health and safety protocols for teams to follow roughly a month before the season started on Dec. 22. Most of the rules revolved around mask-wearing, social-distancing, restricted facility access and daily testing.

The rules also required teams to doll out a new set of responsibilities to team personnel, with outside consultants also joining the fray to ensure that teams followed the new restrictions as closely as possible. Scholler was named testing officer, and others took on the various other responsibilities that included contact tracing, facility hygiene and mask-wearing enforcement. Scholler worked in conjunction with COVID testers from BioReference Laboratories, an OPKO Health company that partnered with the NBA to provide testing facilities to each team.

The NBA also required teams to divide staff into three tiers. The Pistons’ traveling party, which typically would include up to 60 people in a normal season, was designated as “Tier 1” and limited to 45 people. That group included the coaching staff, front office members, all 17 players on the roster and various health-related employees.

It meant that the Pistons were deprived of luxuries such as extra athletic trainers, massage therapists and PR staff on long road trips. The broadcast crew also worked from Detroit this season, rather than travel with the team.

It made Zoom calls more essential than ever, and the team as a whole conducted most of its meetings via video conferencing whenever it could.

“As practitioners in health care, we can’t take care of our players via Zoom so we still had to do in person things that way,” Scholler said. “And then you just had enhanced protocols for that. You had different masks, we had to wear face shields, players wore face shields. That couldn’t be done on zoom. We did do more zoom calls and more conference calls than we did previously any other year in my career.”

On the road, teams could only eat outdoors, in fully-privatized indoor rooms or at pre-approved restaurants by the league. Depending on local ordinances, teams couldn’t dine together at all. Other than testing, Scholler said that providing individualized pre-packaged meals was the next-biggest challenge. 

Home games brought their own unique set of challenges. Tim Padgett, Olympia Entertainment’s vice president of venue operations, said his team had to re-evaluate everything, from cleaning to testing to physically changing parts of the arena to accommodate the new rules.

“Our ops team went above and beyond trying to understand how to clean the venue and changing the physical conditions of the building to meet the NBA’s standards,” he said. “We had to change around how rooms were set up and create physical distancing where there hadn’t been some in the past, and new rooms to do different things that weren’t used before. So we used clubs as testing sites and we used locker rooms in new ways, just re-looked at everything to make this all happen. At the end of the day it was extremely successful. We look back on it with great pride about what a successful year it was and a testament to our fans.”

Employees who worked the red zone, which Padgett said was two-thirds of the event level and included any area where there was player movement such as the court or locker room areas, were tested two days in a row prior to the night of the game.

Once 750 fans at a time were permitted to attend games in mid-March, they were subjected to health-screening questionnaires and required to wear masks before entering the building. Fans sitting courtside were subjected to a more-involved, more-premium experience. Prior to the game, they would go to the Pistons Performance Center and take rapid tests before they were permitted to enter the arena. During the wait, they were provided dinner and team merchandise before being given a wristband that granted them access to the floor at Little Caesars Arena.

The enhanced pre-game hospitality could stick around in the future, Pistons Sports and Entertainment chief business officer Mike Zavodsky said. Other pandemic-related changes, such as cashless transactions and touchless ticket scanning, could also be here to stay.

The game day experience, beyond the lack of fans, was close to normal. The Pistons had special promotions and brought in musical acts. During the last week of the season, the team had a “Martin”-themed night that also featured a performance from local rapper Sada Baby. 

“I think what you saw, particularly the second half of this season with some of the elevated experiences will certainly carry and translate into next year, because I think our goal is obviously to put a good product on the floor but also to entertain people when they come to the building and make it an enjoyable night out,” Zavodsky said.

“Our fanbase has been tremendous throughout everything and super supportive,” Zavodsky said. “Understanding in order to enjoy the game, there were certain games that in order to make sure everybody was safe, that they had to do and were very happy to do so. They were extremely cooperative throughout the process. It translated into a good experience for everybody. And I want to thank everybody for their patience, and obviously for working with us to make sure it was a safe environment for everybody.”

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Pistons content. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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