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The Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California, after the NBA cancelled all of its games after a player tested positive for Covid 19, the disease spread by the coronavirus. | Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s a scenario that seemed implausible a day ago. Now it looks like one we could see for big sports events around the world.

“If even one player comes down with coronavirus, the [NBA] would suspend instantaneously because of the cascading effect of quarantines,” ESPN basketball reporter Brian Windhorst told me on Wednesday afternoon.

It only took a few hours for Windhorst’s prediction to pan out: On Wednesday night, the NBA announced that a player for the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus, and that the league was suspending its games “until further notice.”

That announcement also adds context to a jaw-dropping scene that happened on Wednesday, when fans in Oklahoma City, who had come to see the Thunder play the Jazz, were told, 35 minutes after the game was supposed to start, that they should go home, without explanation:

All of which underscores just how quickly American reactions to the coronavirus are morphing. Things that seemed far-fetched or alarmist a few days, or even a few hours ago, are becoming realities.

And while the way the big time sports leagues handle the pandemic may ultimately be a footnote to the way this story pans out, I can also see it helping to snap Americans’ focus to attention.

It’s one thing to debate among your friends, or strangers online, how worried we ought to be about the threat. It may be another thing to turn on the TV and see athletes playing in an empty arena, or games suspended or cancelled entirely.

Which is where we are now.

A few hours before the NBA announced that it was suspending its games, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that its huge March Madness tournament, which features 63 games played over several weeks in arenas throughout the country, would be closed to the public.

Instead, NCAA President Mark Emmert said, attendance would be limited to “essential staff and limited family attendance.”

When I talked to Windhorst on Wednesday for this week’s episode of Recode Media, we discussed the notion that the NBA — which was already being compelled to ban fans from games in cities like San Francisco — might have to suspend its games altogether.

Windhorst seemed convinced that the league would end up forgoing its playoffs, which are scheduled to start in mid-April and finish up in early June. At the time — which, again, was a few hours before I started typing this — the idea seemed at the edge of possibility to me.

“I think it’s more likely that the NBA suspends,” Windhorst told me. “Specifically for the playoff games. I could see them keeping their head above water, taking some losses on regular season games for a while. But I think eventually if if this goes on, they will suspend and and try to get all their playoff games in later on.”

Windhorst’s logic: Look at the way professional sports leagues in China and Italy, countries ravaged by the pandemic, had handled their games — they initially tried playing in empty stadiums and arenas, and eventually shut down altogether.

Windhorst, who has been covering the NBA since 2003, did have one hedge: “If a player gets sick, it’s the league shutting down immediately. But I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”

And, in fact, as Windhorst and I were speaking, NBA owners and executives were meeting to discuss their coronavirus strategy. Windhorst’s colleagues at ESPN reported that the initial plan was to play in empty arenas.

But now, in retrospect, it’s easy to see why the league would shut down once a single player tested positive for Covid-19. On Wednesday evening, players for the both the Jazz and the Thunder were reportedly being quarantined at the Oklahoma City arena, and Windhorst reports that players for five teams that played the Jazz in the last 10 days are being asked to self-quarantine.

That is: Seven of the NBA’s 30 teams can’t play right now, regardless of whether fans are watching them. The virus forced the NBA’s hand. And we’ll be very lucky if that’s the most stunning turn of events in the next few months, weeks, or days.

You can listen to my conversation with Windhorst below, at Apple Podcasts, or any other podcast platform:

Author: Peter Kafka

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