Beard: Reflecting on the two-year anniversary of the NBA COVID shutdown

Detroit News

Detroit — For many people, the pandemic has had a way of altering the perception of time. There’s a clear delineation between things that happened before 2020 and things that happened after — and even the stuff after has its own rhythm.

There’s a clear middle ground, though, the tipping point when time seemed to be moving in an altered slow motion.

That’s the day the NBA shut down the season because of the first cases of COVID-19. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive, and it was a chilling few hours on March 11, 2020 when the news started to spread — and myriad questions followed.

The Pistons were in Philadelphia, and that Wednesday morning shootaround was anything but business as usual. The NBA already had started its distancing protocols, and although it was just coach Dwane Casey and I in the morning shootaround media availability, we had to sit in a press room at Wells Fargo Center, more than 10 feet apart.

We exchanged pleasantries, but there was a sense that nothing was normal.

And nothing has been normal in the two years since.

“It’s unprecedented. It’s the only time that I’ve ever been in a situation where health is at risk, and it’s very serious,” Casey said before that 2020 game against the Sixers. “I know the league is taking it very seriously and trying to take steps to get it where it doesn’t affect as many people. I know our (NBA) governor has issued recommendations and so have the Warriors.

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“I know that they’re doing it all out of trying to do what’s best for everyone.”

Before mask mandates, before vaccines, before booster, there was just hope.

So much has happened in the past two years. There has been death — a lot of it. There’s been isolation, online shopping, family time, a communal normalizing to virtual school and virtual meetings.

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The Pistons’ roster has been revamped completely. Gone are the days that Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard and Christian Wood graced the roster. Killian Hayes, the current longest-tenured Pistons player, was still playing in Europe.

The Sixers game was the merciful end to a string of 12 losses in their final 13 games. The Philadelphia crowd reveled in the 18-point win, but no one knew what was coming next. The NBA suspended the season after Gobert’s positive test. Everything hit closer to home with the epiphany that the Pistons had played the Jazz at Little Caesars Arena just four days prior.

In the postgame press conference, there were so many unknowns, and instead of questions about the next game or the remainder of the season, the concern was about the players, their families and the immediate future off the court.

“(Suspending the season) is the prudent thing to do. With what went on in Utah, I don’t know all the information, but that shows you how fragile everything is,” Casey said that night. “I haven’t talked (the team) as a group, but I know they’re all concerned — and rightfully so. Everybody in our league should be concerned. Everybody in our country should be concerned.”

For a few hours, there was uncertainty and anxiety. Who needed to be tested? Were any of the Pistons exposed? I had interviewed Wood after the Jazz game. Was I in any danger?

It was all preparation for the following two years of asking questions and worrying about the pandemic. Sports usually is the escape from such tribulations. Without sports, what would happen next?

The NBA season finished in the Bubble. Sports survived, as it has done through wars, through so many bad times. Heartache with favorite teams was replaced with empathy for fellow man and woman, and the pandemic allowed us to put many things in perspective and to re-prioritize our lives in so many ways.

The Pistons began their rebuild shortly after that, and along with Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart arrived, bringing with them hope for the future in Detroit. Cade Cunningham came the following year, and all of a sudden, there’s optimism where there were grey skies and uncertainty.

That optimism and hope are still churning toward something more palpable for the Pistons, but it’s there.

Sports has a way of holding that place for us.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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