How the NBA accelerated America’s coronavirus response

Henry Bushnell
·11 min read

At around 7:45 p.m. ET on March 11, 2020, NBA commissioner Adam Silver emerged from his Fifth Avenue office and stepped out into a brisk Manhattan night. A car awaited him. He ducked in. And his phone rang.

As it did, across America, life moved. Uneasiness had begun gnawing at some citizens. But many approached this Wednesday evening like any other. Nick Fasulo, a Bay Area marketing director, greeted his fiancée and hopped on a call with their wedding planner. Brad Spencer, a Utah IT admin, departed for a night class en route to his college degree. Booker Blakley, an Oklahoma geometry teacher, settled into his 200-level seat at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and watched as Thunder and Jazz players warmed up below.

Paul Horn, a northern Virginia headhunter, was out bowling. He and his friends exchanged high-fives freely. The bowling league's treasurer punctuated one with a lighthearted jab at any nearby worriers. “You ain’t scared of no virus!” she crowed.

Silver, however, was about to change that. The call was from NBA general counsel Rick Buchanan. Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19. His teammates were 15 minutes from tipoff in Oklahoma City. Silver, therefore, had 15 minutes to react. He asked around, consulting Thunder executives and NBA officials. No local health authority had told them they couldn’t play the game.

Silver, though, decided to abandon it. And then, soon thereafter, to suspend the entire NBA season. He sat in the car outside his Manhattan apartment building, running late for dinner with his wife. When he finally opened the apartment door, and told her what he’d just done, an overpowering surge of emotion shot through him.

He knew the decision would be momentous, one of his biggest as NBA commissioner.

He didn’t realize, however, just how influential it would be in shaping America’s broader coronavirus response.

In a span of 30 minutes that evening, three major events made “the U.S. population, politicians, the government stand up and take notice of this [virus] in a way that they hadn't before,” says Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. And the most impactful of the three, he and others say, was the NBA suspension. It snatched citizens’ attention and spurred institutional action in a way few other singular decisions did.

“I think it was very profound,” Shaman says. “The NBA was really the first to pull the trigger and say, ‘Economic consequences be damned, we have to put public health above this until we can get a sense of what's going on.’

“So I think that was a monumental event for the U.S.”

Basketball fans clear out after it is announced that an NBA basketball game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City has been postponed, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)
Basketball fans clear out after it is announced that an NBA basketball game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City has been postponed, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)

Just a normal day, until ...

Before life screeched to a halt, on Fridays in Peoria, Illinois, Joe Messmore, the 36-year-old owner of a household cleaning franchise, would lead meetings that were oftentimes upbeat. He’d pay bonuses, and cheer employees, a feel-good cap to a successful week. On Friday, March 6, 2020, there was no meeting – because Messmore had rescheduled it for Thursday to enable a weekend getaway. And at that Thursday meeting, he’d briefed his team on the coronavirus.

"This is going to be blown up in the media, so be aware,” he said, surely echoing thousands of bosses across the country. “We don't have anything to worry about here, though – yet.”

Messmore had Googled pandemics, and the Googling had supported his nonchalance. He’d equated this one with Ebola and H1N1. Millions of Americans made similar assumptions. There was a widespread feeling, says Craig Kafura, a Chicago public opinion researcher, that “pandemic disease is not an American problem.” Polling data, including those collected March 1-3 by YouGov, indicate that less than 20% of American adults had “changed any usual behaviors” in response to COVID-19.

Messmore was among the many who hadn’t. He hopped in his car and drove to St. Louis, like he did every March as a proud supporter of Bradley University. His wife and two daughters accompanied him. They watched the school’s men’s basketball team storm through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. On Sunday, a downtown entertainment district bustled with students and alums.

Messmore downed beers and barely thought about the virus as 8,000 fans packed in around him that day. One of his buddies, he says, was “really sick that whole weekend.” Messmore hugged him and celebrated with him and didn’t think twice. Bradley won the final, clinching an NCAA tournament berth. Messmore reveled deep into the night, joining boosters and athletic department staffers at a hole-in-the-wall bar back in Peoria. The team’s head coach, Brian Wardle, asked him about March Madness travel plans: “You guys are coming wherever we're going, right?!” The following morning, March 9, Messmore made hotel reservations at every potential first-round site.

Group texts buzzed incessantly over the coming days. Dreamland is a wonderful place. Messmore was very much living in it on Wednesday, March 11, as he lay at the end of his daughters’ bed. He fired up an app called Moshi, and queued calming tunes to lull them to sleep. He perused social media as they dozed off.

Then he saw the tweet.

NBA season suspended.

Panic washed over him.

He kept quiet, but a voice inside his head screamed: Oh, f***.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban found out the NBA season had been shut down while sitting courtside. (ESPN)
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban found out the NBA season had been shut down while sitting courtside. (ESPN)

From a joke to real overnight

March 11, 2020, was T.J. Walker’s 29th birthday. To commemorate it, he went out for dinner with his wife. That morning, he’d also cracked open a beer around 7 a.m., and greeted Louisville through a microphone.

“Hello everybody! Happy Wednesday to you,” he’d said with customary enthusiasm.

Walker, a real estate appraiser, also hosts a two-hour drive-time sports radio show. And up until that day, he and his co-hosts stuck to sports. On Tuesday, March 10, they bantered about John Calipari and conference tournaments. Almost an hour in, a joke about toilet paper-stockpiling led to a first mention of the coronavirus.

"Are you worried?" Walker asked his co-host.

"Ah, nah, not too much,” the co-host said. “I'll be honest with ya, to this point, I still don't even know what symptoms are. All I know is, it's named after a beer and you should wash your hands.”

They laughed, as did millions of Americans in similar conversations. The vast majority were at least aware of what COVID-19 was. But in Pew research conducted March 10-11, only 42% said it was a major threat to the health of the U.S. population, and only 23.8% considered it a major threat to their personal health. “It was a far-away problem, not an our problem,” says Blakley, the Oklahoma teacher who had tickets to the Thunder game that Wednesday. When an OKC sports radio host learned that Gobert was questionable with an illness, his first response was: “That would be huge for the Thunder.”

Silver and the league office were far more knowledgeable than the average American. Like most businesses, though, in the absence of government mandates, they’d been happy to continue apace. On Wednesday, the league’s board of governors had reluctantly moved toward a decision to at some point restrict fan attendance. But when Silver left work that evening, all six Wednesday games were set to be played in front of capacity crowds.

"We were drawing up plans for reduced attendance, and even potentially to have no fans,” Silver said, “but not to shut the league down entirely."

Then he got the call, and directed the mad scramble to postpone the game in Oklahoma City. Police and health authorities rushed to the scene. As Silver coordinated the suspension of the season, a seismic wave of change crashed to shore on primetime TV. At 9:01 ET, President Trump banned travel from Europe. At 9:14, Tom Hanks announced a positive COVID-19 test. At 9:27, news of Gobert’s positive test hit Twitter. At 9:31, the season halted.

And Americans everywhere halted in their tracks.

In Utah, Brad Spencer’s IT class stopped learning about Domain Name System, and started talking about whether they’d ever see one another again.

At Madison Square Garden watching the Big East tournament, Meri Spelman, a New York lawyer, texted her brother: “I don't know what I'm doing here. This seems like a bad idea.”

In Illinois, Messmore’s mind shot to his business; and to his employees, and the income they rely on to support their families. With his daughters asleep, he crept to his own bedroom. “This isn't good,” he told his wife after relaying the NBA news. “I don't know what's going to happen, but this is not good.” He barely slept that night.

In southern Indiana, Walker hit the airwaves at 7 the following morning. His tone was somber and slightly distressed.

“I'm a little shook,” his co-host admitted. “Because yesterday felt like God staring at you and saying, ‘You idiots! Pay! Attention!’ ”

Says Spencer, the Utah IT student: “It went from a joke to real, overnight.”

The ripple effect

Silver knew his decision would have a “ripple effect.” It swept through sports with nauseating speed. In Philadelphia the following morning, Union players were preparing for their home opener when a team administrator walked onto their practice field. MLS has suspended its season as well. Head coach Jim Curtin took off his whistle and told his captain. Disappointment spread throughout the team and the league.

Over the next hour, almost every major college conference canceled its men’s basketball tournament. At 1:36 ET, the NHL paused its season. At 2:31, the NFL canceled its annual league meetings. At 3:10, MLB called off spring training. At 4:16, the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships, including the basketball tournaments responsible for more than 80% of its annual revenue.

Perhaps more significantly, though, the ripple effects extended well beyond sports. March 11 impacted the perceptions of many citizens, both indirectly and directly. Google searches for the coronavirus spiked at 10 ET Wednesday night, and more broadly peaked over the 24 hours that followed. More people searched for topics related to the virus on March 12 than on any other day, ever. And coronavirus searches outnumbered other popular topics, such as Trump, by a ratio of 10-to-1.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Various queries related to the NBA also surged, and were more frequent than at any previous point in the 2019-20 season.

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Hanks’ diagnosis and Trump’s Oval Office address were also significant and impactful. In tandem, the three events touched a wide range of sensibilities and walks of American life. Their bipartisan impact appeared immediately in Pew data. From March 10-11 to March 12-13, the percentage of U.S. adults who perceived the virus as a major threat jumped by 5-10 points.

They also became catalysts for a vicious cycle, explains Erik Nisbet, a Northwestern University professor who studies the intersection of public opinion and policy. Rapid changes in public opinion allowed and encouraged policymakers to implement stricter countermeasures. Over the rest of the week, dozens of states and hundreds of cities announced all sorts of restrictions on social life. Schools shuttered. Restaurants closed. Those disruptions, in turn, further influenced public opinion, and forced Americans everywhere to take the virus seriously.

“That's what made it real to people,” Nisbet says. “It wasn't [Trump’s] address” – nor the NBA, nor Hanks. “It was the changes on the ground in their own localities or states that really sensitized them to a threat. … It's an indirect impact.”

'That was when things got really real'

Millions of Americans packed up office materials on March 12 and 13. Many haven’t returned to their places of work since. The pandemic has wreaked more havoc on daily life than almost anybody could have imagined it would. And the NBA is far from responsible for any lasting impact. “If we hadn't gone first,” Silver says, “somebody else would've shortly thereafter.”

Experts say it’s difficult to prove causality between the NBA shutdown and public opinion shifts. But a few interviewed for this story are confident that Silver’s decision did indeed accelerate the nation’s response. And testimony from two dozen everyday citizens who spoke with Yahoo Sports very much supported the theory.

“That was basically the end of normal,” says Paul Horn, the Virginia bowler. He received an email from a league administrator that night acknowledging that, “between the drive to the bowling alley and the drive home, a lot has changed.”

“That was when we started to question the very basics of life, the stupid mundane details,” says Lee Feiner, a New York film director.

“That was when things got really real.”

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