After the Timberwolves had shoot-around in New Orleans on March 3, guard D’Angelo Russell took a little bottle of hand sanitizer and gave a little squirt to surrounding teammates, staff and media members. Nobody left the arena that morning without some of Russell’s supply.
Russell remarked about how he was concerned about the spread of coronavirus. Most there laughed off Russell’s actions as unnecessary.
But just over a week later, nobody was laughing.
The NBA was at the forefront of the response of the sports world to coronavirus. It was the first major professional sports league to suspend its season, shortly after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive Wednesday night. All other major U.S. leagues, the PGA Tour and the NCAA followed suit.
Before Gobert’s positive test, all reports indicated the NBA was leaning toward continuing the season without fans in attendance. Gobert’s diagnosis changed all of that, and perhaps it changed not only sports’ response but awoke the country at large to the threat at hand.
“There’s no playbook for this,” Timberwolves CEO Ethan Casson said in an interview Friday. “There’s no orientation for something like this. There’s really nothing that I can think of, whether it’s my career, or anything in and around our league, that is similar in nature to this. So we are in one way navigating uncharted waters.
“Yet I would tell you there is an incredible sense of optimism, an incredible sense of community, of collaboration, of support, infrastructure led by our commissioner and all of the teams and team representatives and players and staff that have really come together in this set of circumstances.”
As it pertains to the Wolves, Casson said the team began educating players and staff weeks ago about the epidemic — hence Russell doling out hand sanitizer more than a week ago.
“As hectic as Wednesday night ultimately played out to be, there was a level of preparation that teams, in particular us here in our market, were ready for a number of different scenarios and ultimately this was one of those scenarios,” Casson said. “We’re glad the action was taken as swiftly as it was.”
Casson said the team has been in contact with the governor’s office and Minnesota Department of Health throughout the past few weeks, but the decision on whether to play games at Target Center was taken out of their hands when the league suspended the season, a postponement Commissioner Adam Silver has said will last at least 30 days. The idea of playing in front of no fans was something not a lot of Wolves players were thrilled to ponder as that news was percolating earlier this week.
“I wouldn’t enjoy it at all,” Russell said Tuesday. “It would be hard to get up for that. I don’t even know what that would look like, to be honest.”
Added forward Jake Layman: “As a player, it would be terrible to play with no fans in an arena. That’d be no fun. No fun at all to do that.”
As of Friday, Casson said no players or staff members had been tested for coronavirus because nobody was displaying symptoms. The team has advised players to stay at home and the NBA has banned all group meetings and practices through at least Monday. There might be a time the Wolves get back to practicing, but just when that will be is anybody’s guess.
“Things are happening too quickly to forecast out what next week looks like and two weeks look like,” Casson said. “We’re going to lean heavily on the NBA along with their recommendations on what teams should or shouldn’t be doing.”
Ironically, the Wolves have said they could use a training camp to have what is essentially a new team learn how the coaching staff wants it to play. Perhaps they will have something like a training camp on the other side of this pandemic.
As it pertains to the potential economic impact the league and Wolves will face as a result of the coronavirus, Casson said that is “not even on the agenda at this point at anyone’s level based on the severity of what we’re talking about.”
“This isn’t a priority about playing games, per se, this isn’t a priority about revenues,” Casson said. “This is a priority about people and doing the right thing.”
But there are those who work Wolves games and depend on that income. Around the NBA, owners and even players like the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love and Pelicans’ Zion Williamson have committed money to make sure arena workers are taken care of during this time. The Wolves are evaluating what they could do in their situation, which is complicated by the fact that most arena workers are employed by ASM Global, which operates Target Center.
“We recognize the impact this is having on a lot of people and every stakeholder that’s a part of our organization directly, indirectly, full time, part time,” Casson said. “We’re going to be very deliberate and mindful and thoughtful about how to go about managing through this crisis.”