How the NBA moved so quickly on coronavirus testing

  • Senior writer for ESPN.com
  • Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News

THE FIRST REPORTS started landing in NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s inbox at about the same time he was writing the eulogy for his mentor David Stern.

It was mid-January, and news of the coronavirus in China, where the NBA has 200 employees at offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei, had begun indicating community spread of COVID-19 outside the epicenter of Wuhan in Hubei province.

Silver monitored the situation closely, staying in daily contact with league employees in China who were witnessing the devastating spread of the virus firsthand. The NBA’s relationship with China had been strained since the fall, following Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet about Hong Kong. But Silver believed it was imperative to keep up the connection, having been counseled by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that the future of the world was dependent on the U.S. and China working together on matters of global importance.

Public health crises had come up before around the world in locations with NBA employees, but they hadn’t reached this scale or severity.

The former commissioner’s memorial was on Jan. 21 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, and Silver was a featured speaker. On the same day, the U.S. confirmed its first case of COVID-19 in Washington state. Two days later, massive quarantines began across China as the country tried to control the spread of the virus.

The NBA began to activate its pandemic protocols from the crisis management guide it distributes internally and to teams every year.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy had advised the league on the need for such planning years earlier, even addressing the possibility of a pandemic at a 2016 board of governors meeting, according to sources.

At the Brooklyn Nets’ celebration of Chinese Lunar New Year on Jan. 29, Silver asked Dr. David Ho, Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 1996 for his groundbreaking work in treating the HIV virus, to start advising the league on COVID-19.

Senior vice president David Weiss began preparing a memo to distribute to teams, alerting them to the growing threat and providing guidance on how to prepare for it.

Weiss is a lawyer by trade who noted in a 2016 Sports Business Daily profile that he’d once jumped off “one of the highest bungee jumps in the world” while in South Africa. He has run the NBA’s player health programs since 2012, setting up protocols to deal with concussions, infectious diseases and mental health. The challenge in front of him by late January, as the virus spread around the globe, was enormous.

Then, on Jan. 26, former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant and eight others were killed in a helicopter crash. The entire NBA world was crushed. Decisions had to be made about whether to postpone the Lakers-Clippers game on Jan. 28. But there was no time to pause the planning for a pandemic.

On Jan. 31 — just days after the outbreak in China had forced the Chinese Basketball Association to shut down, and five days after Bryant’s death — Weiss delivered his first memo to teams:

“In light of the global reach of the NBA and frequent travel of teams and staff, we are closely monitoring the spread of a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) both in the United States and internationally,” Weiss wrote.

“As of today, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the new coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The CDC has confirmed six cases in four U.S. states (Arizona, California, Illinois and Washington), including the first confirmed instance of person-to-person spread of the virus within the United States, which was confirmed in Illinois yesterday.”

THAT WARNING AT the end of January was stark.

“There is currently no vaccine to prevent infection from the coronavirus.

“Please remind players and team personnel preventative actions to reduce the spread of the flu apply to the spread of all viruses, including the coronavirus.”

By sending it, Weiss kick-started a series of protocols and preparations that had the NBA and its teams at the front of the line for testing by the time the league discovered its first confirmed case of the virus and subsequently suspended operations on March 11.

“We’ve been living this at the league office since mid-January,” Silver told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on Wednesday. “We’ve been on alert as at least to what the consequences could be if the coronavirus had spread to the United States.”

The NBA sent at least three “Coronavirus Update” memos, which ESPN has obtained and reviewed, to team officials in February, urging them to prepare for the pandemic to come to North America.

Silver even made a point of mentioning the crisis during his remarks on Feb. 15 during NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago.

“It’s moved to the top of virtually everyone’s agenda,” he said. “I mean, particularly in the Wuhan province. It’s almost hard for us to be having conversations about the broadcasting of games when there’s a major national, if not global, health crisis happening.”

On Feb. 29, at the same time California, New York and Washington State had documented community spread of the virus, Weiss instructed each team to open communication with local public health officials, infectious disease specialists and a local medical center “to be able to provide evaluations for COVID-19 in the case where there is suspicion of exposure to, or symptoms.”

If there was a reason to test a player, coach or staffer for COVID-19, the NBA should be lined up to act quickly.

Stephen Curry is believed to have been the first player to have taken a test for the virus. On March 7, the Golden State Warriors said he’d tested positive for influenza-A and didn’t have COVID-19. The Warriors declined to officially say if Curry was tested, but coach Steve Kerr told reporters he believed Curry had been.

Protocols were activated again on March 10, when, according to sources, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert first reported feeling chills, a headache and a dry cough to Jazz physicians. Tests for influenza A and B, strep and upper respiratory infections all came back negative.

According to a memo sent by the Jazz and obtained by ESPN, because Gobert had a fever over 100 and reported having had houseguests from high-risk areas, Oklahoma state health officials — in conjunction with Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder team physicians — decided he should be tested for COVID-19.

“We didn’t know exactly what the situation was once we got the one positive test, we didn’t know what the extent of that was,” Oklahoma State Department of Health commissioner Gary Cox said. “So you certainly do want to concentrate on those that have close personal contact with a positive case, and in this case very close contact as far as traveling and things of that nature.”

In the time since, eight teams have been tested for the virus at medical centers or labs that the NBA established connection with weeks earlier. After the Nets reported four positive COVID-19 cases, other teams solicited the Nets seeking insight on testing, sources told ESPN.

But the ease with which these teams have obtained tests, while the nation is experiencing a shortage of kits, has drawn waves of criticism. There has been a reluctance among teams and players to admit whether they have been tested, and by what means they obtained a test.

On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio blasted what he perceived as preferential treatment, suggesting NBA teams and players were using their wealth and connections to cut to the front of the line, ahead of “critically ill patients waiting to be tested.”

President Donald Trump was asked Wednesday why asymptomatic professional athletes were getting tests while others struggled to obtain them.

“Perhaps that’s the story of life,” Trump responded. “That does happen on occasion, and I’ve noticed where people have been tested fairly quickly.”

In response, National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts told ESPN on Wednesday, “The problem that more of us can’t get the tests — and I’m not apologetic about saying it — in my view rests at the foot of the federal government. They were responsible for making sure we were protected in that regard, and I think they failed.

“We shouldn’t be fighting about this now … but once this is done and we get through it, and we will, let’s figure out who screwed up and fix that.”

Roberts said public health officials have expressed concern about infected NBA players exposing others to the virus because of the high number of people they come in contact with and how much they travel.

“We were doing games where tens of thousands of people were coming into our arenas,” Roberts said. “We were exposing potentially a lot of people to being infected.

“In many ways, I think it would have been irresponsible for the teams not to test their players and staffers because people … have the right to know if they’d been exposed.”

WEISS HAS CONTINUED to send regular memos to teams since the league suspended operations.

Many are numbered: Hiatus Memo No. 1, No. 2, No. 3. Sixteen hiatus memos have been delivered to teams.

Group activities have been prohibited since March 12. NBA league employees have been mandated to work from home since March 13. And on Thursday, Hiatus Memo No. 16 instructed the closure of team facilities to players and staff beginning Friday.

Nobody knows how many more memos will be sent, but a sense of dread accompanies each one.

Silver said Wednesday that eight teams had obtained testing because they’d had exposure to known infected people or had players who were symptomatic. So far, seven players have reportedly tested positive, of which Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Detroit’s Christian Wood and Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant have been named publicly.

It is possible to obtain testing from private companies such as Roche, Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp or academic institutions like Stanford or UCLA. The key, sources said, is having a physician with relationships to those companies or academic labs who can order the tests quickly. The Thunder and Nets have publicly noted they paid private companies to administer their tests, so as not to take away from public resources.

NBA teams have a host of team doctors with access to expedited care options. Many also have direct sponsorship and cooperative deals with top hospitals and medical systems. The Lakers are sponsored by UCLA Medical Center. The Cleveland Cavaliers are sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic. The Minnesota Timberwolves are sponsored by the Mayo Clinic. All three institutions have developed their own tests for COVID-19.

Wendy Bost, a spokeswoman for Quest Diagnostics, told ESPN’s Tisha Thompson that the majority of tests performed by Quest have been for health systems and physicians. But a small percentage has also gone to sports teams, she said, all of which had at least one diagnosed case of COVID-19.

“I, of course, understand [de Blasio’s] point in that it’s unfortunate we’re at this position as a society where it’s triage when it comes to testing,” Silver said. “And so the fundamental issue is obviously there are insufficient tests. I’d only say in the case of the NBA, we’ve been following the recommendations of public health officials.”

Eventually, the NBA will have to be satisfied that the virus is not spreading among its population. Testing is the only way to do that. But while the NBA’s pandemic planning might have put it at the front of the line for testing, there are no clear or quick paths to resume the season.

The league is now studying the effects of social isolation on the mental health of its players, coaches and staffers, according to sources. Daily calls are held with mental health experts, and plans are being devised to use technology to help mitigate the effects of that isolation.

The league office has been closed since last Friday, but no one has stopped working.

“I’ve certainly learned in this job and in this process that when people pretend they can predict the future, they’re generally wrong,” Silver said.

“We’re going to try by every means we can to play basketball again, but I say that the safety and health of our players is first, and our fans, which is why I don’t want to speculate more on that.”

Brian Windhorst, Royce Young, Zach Lowe, Tim Bontemps, Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks contributed to this report.

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