The NBA's Disney World dream could turn into a nightmare, fast

By Hunter Felt
LeBron James and his fellow NBA players are set to resume action at the end of July
LeBron James and his fellow NBA players are set to resume action at the end of July. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Adam Silver has a plan. The NBA commissioner and his committees have worked tirelessly to come up with a way to salvage the 2019-20 season. After much deliberation, the league came up with a way to bring 22 NBA teams to Walt Disney World, where they will play an abbreviated (eight-game) regular season to finalize playoff seedings followed by a full postseason. In a perfect world, the resumption of basketball would be a symbolic first step to show the US is ready to move on from the coronavirus pandemic.

Is the US ready to move on from the pandemic though?

Absolutely not. In fact, the NBA is planning to hold the remainder of the season in a state that has seen a sudden rise in cases. On Monday, the Florida Department of Health confirmed that the state had reached the 100,000 mark.

But the NBA isn’t forcing anyone to play?

Correct. Participation is completely voluntary, which means that players who don’t feel it will be safe – or think that it would be a distraction from the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests – can sit out without penalty other than missed salary. In fact, the Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley announced this week that he will not participate. “At a time like this,” Bradley said, “I can’t imagine making any decision that might put my family’s health and well-being at even the slightest risk.”

It’s almost certain that players will test positive, right?

Yes. In fact, it’s already happening, as the NBA began testing earlier this month. On Tuesday, the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic tested positive and is currently going through protocols before he is able to travel. Certainly, others will be found before the games even begin.

Who will be coming to this Disney/basketball mashup?

Each team will be allowed 17 players, their full 15-man rosters alongside their two-way players as backups (the league is expecting quite a bit of attrition here). In addition, teams will have an assortment of coaches and training staff, up to 37 people per organization. Nobody, not even LeBron James, will be allowed guests until the second round of the playoffs, so that means everybody will spend time away from their families. While the players and staffers will be expected to stay within the bubble, the employees at Disney World (they are called “cast members”) obviously won’t be under such restrictions, and will be entering the NBA campus from a state where Covid-19 is currently on the rise.

This is all starting to sound like an episode of The Prisoner …

Yep. In fact, the Ringer took a deep dive into some of the creepier aspects of what NBA players will have to put up with during their prolonged stay at the Happiest Place On Earth. Haley O’Shaughnessy notes that every player will be required to wear a MagicBand, a bracelet containing an electronic chip, while some players will have the option to wear a “smart ring” which can supposedly predict certain Covid-19 symptoms.

In summary: the NBA is set to resume in Florida right when coronavirus cases are surging in the state. The games themselves will take place at Walt Disney World, where the players will be electronically tracked and monitored. There’s a very serious risk that restarting the season will directly lead to people getting seriously sick or even dying. Some players seem to think that even playing basketball at all could end up distracting people from more important issues

Is basketball really worth all of this?

Well, the forces of the marketplace have apparently decided that it is. Even if Florida’s coronavirus numbers are giving Silver nightmares – and they should – it’s probably too late in the process for him to halt things. He’s not that different from many other business owners trying to figure out when to restart while knowing that it means gambling with workers’ lives. It’s just that his workers happen to be very famous.

When going over the league’s plans to deal with the coronavirus, the NBA Players Association’s Michele A Roberts told the Associated Press, “having lived and breathed and suffered through the hours and hours of understanding the virus, and listening to our experts, and comparing different alternative protocols, I can’t even think of anything else we could do short of hermetically seal the players that would keep them safe.”

What the NBA would like us to hear in Roberts’ statement was her insistence that the league had come up with the plan that has the best chance at keeping everybody safe. This is probably true. What the NBA probably would have liked us to tune out is the tacit acknowledgment that there isn’t a safe way of restarting the NBA season is the current circumstances. This is also probably true.

Given all this, do you think there is an ethical way to watch and enjoy the remainder of the NBA season?

That is a very good question. And the answer may come to haunt the NBA.