COVID-19 frustration bubbles over in European basketball

·3 min read

Europe's top basketball league features teams from 10 countries navigating COVID-19 cases, international travel restrictions and last-minute postponements. It makes the NBA bubble look like a walk in the amusement park.

NBA great Tony Parker's team in France has played only half of its scheduled games in the EuroLeague. The chaotic start prompted Milan coach Ettore Messina on Monday to call for suspending the season until March or April.

“As for now, the only logical choice seems to be to put on hold the European competition and allow the national leagues to finish their season(s) in the next four months since in-country travelling will be easier,” Messina, a former assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, wrote in an open letter.

The 18-team EuroLeague — like soccer's Champions League — is a season-long tournament between the continent's top clubs who also play domestic schedules. The league cancelled its 2019-20 season in May.

International tournaments could resume in March or April, Messina said, when the coronavirus might be under control “or shut down.” They could finish in time for Olympic preparations, he added.

Adding the EuroCup, Europe's second-tier basketball competition, 15 countries are represented. That doesn't count separate FIBA competitions.

The NBA is targeting a Dec. 22 start for its next season, in what would be a quick turnaround for the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers and Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat. The league finished last season in a bubble at Walt Disney World.

Before the EuroLeague's season launched this month, league president Jordi Bertomeu said there was a Plan B that includes a bubble for a worst-case scenario. But on Monday, the league said it is not entertaining Messina's proposal.

“We fully respect Ettore's personal opinion, however it is not being discussed at any level,” the league said in a statement to The Associated Press. “All EuroLeague basketball and its participating clubs' efforts are focused on developing the season as approved and scheduled this past July.”

The league added that its health and safety protocols “have been taken to avoid the activation of a B plan.” The season is scheduled to end May 28-30 with the Final Four in Cologne.

Through six rounds of the season, only half of the clubs have played a full schedule. Zenit St. Petersburg has played only twice after eight players and several coaches tested positive in early October.

Parker's team, ASVEL Lyon, has played three games, the most recent of which included the call-up of two academy players because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the team. Parker bought a majority stake in 2014 while still playing for the Spurs.

Governments across Europe are scrambling to slow a rapid rise in coronavirus infections. Germany, France, Italy, Greece and Spain — all home to EuroLeague teams — have implemented tougher restrictions. Overall, Europe has more than 250,000 confirmed virus-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

“The difficulties in travelling internationally are increasing serious health concerns for teams and referees," Messina wrote.

Soon, Messina added, there will be no room for rescheduling and games will be decided by “who will be more lucky” by having available players.

While European soccer leagues have managed to continue mostly uninterrupted, basketball has been a grind.

Milan's game last week against Alba Berlin was called off. Seven of the German team's players had tested positive in the two weeks prior. The visitors asked for a postponement out of fear of Italian regulations imposing a quarantine on the team.

Milan, currently fourth in the standings, has played in Germany and Greece and is scheduled to play at Valencia this Friday before travelling to Russia for two games next week.

The German and Spanish domestic leagues finished last season with bubble tournaments.

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Ken Maguire, The Associated Press