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N.B.A. Players Miss Other Sports Too


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Josh Hart and the New Orleans Pelicans were supposed to play at home against the Knicks last Friday. Hart instead found himself stuck at home and in a mood to muse.

“I miss the Premier League,” Hart said on Twitter along with a sad-face emoji.

With the weekend approaching, Hart couldn’t help himself. The N.B.A.’s shutdown in response to the global coronavirus outbreak has abruptly foisted chaos and uncertainty upon everyone associated with professional basketball. But Saturdays and Sundays, marquee N.B.A. days, have also meant watching Chelsea matches by any means necessary for Hart and his close friend, Larry Nance Jr. of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“My two favorite things to do this time of year are to play basketball and watch soccer,” Nance said. “I know how all N.B.A. fans feel. I feel like I lost two seasons.”

Hart and Nance are among the most vocal of a growing community of N.B.A. players who fervently follow international soccer, which has also been largely brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic. They were teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers for half a season and excitedly shared their fandom with two other soccer-loving Lakers: Alex Caruso, a Manchester City supporter, and the retired forward Luol Deng, who spent a chunk of his youth in London and closely follows Arsenal.

Like countless players across the N.B.A. map, Hart and Nance are adjusting to their new realities, trying to maintain some semblance of conditioning without games, practices or much permissible contact with other humans amid strict instructions to self-quarantine.

Many players, Hart said, can’t do anything constructive with a basketball under these circumstances because they don’t have access to team facilities, and both private gyms and public courts are widely off limits.

“When you’re not even getting shots up, it’s definitely going to take a long time for guys to get back, not only physically into playing shape but also mentally,” Hart said.

Yet Hart and Nance are inevitably pining for their favorite off-court outlet, too. The Premier League season has been suspended until at least April 30 and will likely be further delayed. Hart and Nance have become two of Chelsea’s most widely known celebrity fans, embraced to such a degree that they were featured together last week on the club’s official American podcast.

They have struck up friendships with Chelsea players like Mason Mount, Antonio Rudiger and, of course, the budding American star Christian Pulisic. They mourned after two former Chelsea stalwarts who double as huge N.B.A. fans — Eden Hazard and the goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois — left for Real Madrid. They are also in a 26-team Premier League fantasy league with Caruso, Deng, Philadelphia’s Josh Richardson, Detroit’s John Henson and Stu Holden, a former United States men’s national team midfielder and a prominent soccer broadcaster.

Last April, Nance traveled to England after the Cavaliers’ season ended to watch five Premier League matches in five days. He naturally built the trip around a trip to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge and added stops at Manchester City, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United. Hart’s chance to make his first trip to “The Bridge” came in August, starting with a visit to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Hart remembered excitedly calling Nance before the kickoff, awestruck by the noise rising around him at his first-ever live Premier League game as a spectator. Nance advised him to stay ready for the first “when the Spurs go marching in” chant from the Tottenham fans.

“I felt chills,” Hart said.

Now Hart and Nance are closely monitoring Premier League developments for entirely different reasons. The Independent newspaper reported on Sunday that league officials are considering bringing all 20 teams in the top tier of English soccer to one or two centralized locations in June and July to isolate them in “World Cup-style” training camps. They would then try to complete the remaining 92 matches in a closed-door, made-for-TV extravaganza.

Similar concepts have likewise been circulating in N.B.A. circles in recent days, with Commissioner Adam Silver describing himself as “an optimist by nature” in an ESPN interview and encouraging open thinking — provided the coronavirus outbreak eases soon. Hope persists in some corners of the league that 30 teams could somehow convene in, say, Las Vegas to try to play out, at worst, a modified postseason in July, August and/or September.

“If they try that in England and it works, you better believe that we’re going to be a few weeks behind that and probably try the same thing,” Nance said.

Nance, though, said he feared that “we’re done” for this N.B.A. season. He has been deeply unsettled by the Covid-19 outbreak as someone who long ago learned he had Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease whose immunosuppressive medication makes him more at risk for infections because it weakens his immune system.

On top of that constant worry is the general concern harbored by many N.B.A. players about what such a sudden halt to the schedule will do to his body.

“Right now, if you’re really doing what you’re supposed to do and just staying at home and not seeing anybody and you’re following the rules that you’re supposed to follow, unless you have a home gym you can’t work out,” Nance said. “In my house, I don’t have a home gym. I’ve got a Peloton bike and a few weights here and there, but that’s not going to keep me in shape for basketball. Everybody’s out of basketball shape.”

Hart had eagerly anticipated a busy March and April toggling between his day job and his intoxicating hobby following Chelsea. While Hart’s soccer team had climbed into a top-four spot in the Premier League, New Orleans (28-36) was just 3 ½ games behind eighth-seeded Memphis and had the most favorable closing schedule of any team in the hunt for the West’s final playoff berth when the N.B.A. announced its indefinite suspension on March 11.

“I’m not very optimistic about the season starting any time in the next two, three, four months,” Hart said. “It’s just too hard. Unless they were somehow able to build a huge hotel and an arena and put a bubble over it in some random place somewhere, that’s my only guess how to actually finish the season in the next several months. You really do have to create a bubble.”

It would appear that fans of both the N.B.A. and international soccer can identify with the sense of emptiness Hart tweeted about: By Tuesday, his post had more than 70,000 likes.

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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)

Q: What is your opinion now on the 2018 draft-day trade that the Hawks made with the Mavericks to swap Luka Doncic for Trae Young and the future first-round pick that became Cam Reddish? — Joe Schulman (Atlanta)

Ed. note: In a pre-arranged deal, Atlanta drafted Doncic No. 3 over all in 2018; Dallas took Young at No. 5. The teams swapped players, with the Mavericks also sending the Hawks a 2019 first-rounder.

Stein: My opinion really hasn’t changed since the deal was made.

I would never pretend to claim that I knew Doncic would emerge as one of the league’s 10 best players by his second season, but I was a believer from the start and felt he should have gone No. 1 over all. That said, I’m a big Trae Young fan, too. He looks like the second-best player in the draft, so Atlanta’s ultimate grade is really riding on what Reddish becomes.

The Hawks need Reddish to flourish to hush the criticism that will continue, no matter how productive Young is, if Doncic cements himself as the perennial Most Valuable Player Award candidate he appears to be. Reddish averaged 16.4 points and shot 38.9 percent on 3-pointers over a 10-game stretch leading into the N.B.A.’s abrupt shutdown, but his rookie season had been a worrisome struggle before that.

I know you asked this question from a Hawks perspective, as an Atlanta resident, so perhaps it will hearten you to hear that, as I’ve also maintained for some time, Phoenix and Sacramento are likely headed for more regret here than Atlanta.

The Suns had the No. 1 pick in 2018 and had just hired one of the world’s foremost Doncic experts, Igor Kokoskov, as their new head coach. It would have been gutsy at the time to take Doncic over Deandre Ayton — especially after Ayton starred at Arizona — but they certainly had no shortage of inside intel.

As for Sacramento and the mounting disappointment among Kings fans after their team used 2018’s No. 2 pick on Marvin Bagley, team officials believed that they already had a young, top-flight lead guard: De’Aaron Fox. So you can understand their thinking — to a degree. Much harder to digest is the opportunity the Kings squandered. Even if they were convinced that Bagley was their man, why not try to make the same trade with Dallas that Atlanta did?

The Kings could have drafted Doncic at No. 2 in a deal with the Mavericks that would have netted the No. 5 pick and a 2019 first-rounder. Atlanta, at No. 3, would have then been expected to take Young, followed by Memphis drafting Jaren Jackson Jr. at No. 4, leaving Bagley at No. 5 for Dallas to pick up on Sacramento’s behalf. Drafting Doncic and trading his rights immediately would have invited plenty of criticism for any team, given the way Doncic has developed, but passing on the Slovenian star becomes more palatable if a second lottery pick is part of the deal.

Q: How do they resume games when players’ contracts expire and salary caps reset in June? — @blake_stakes from Twitter

Stein: Countless player and coach contracts expire June 30. The 2019-20 league year is supposed to end that same day, with a new salary cap ceiling going into effect on July 1. The N.B.A. draft is scheduled for June 25. Free agency negotiations can begin at 6 p.m. Eastern time on June 30. It’s daunting when you start to run through all the revisions that would be required.

But those would all rank as welcome problems compared to the far more unsettling obstacles that must be negotiated to avoid canceling the rest of the 2019-20 season. I posted a fairly lengthy Twitter thread on Sunday night in hopes of listing some of the health-and-safety hurdles that have to be cleared before the N.B.A. can even think about staging games again, even behind closed doors.

Instinct tells me that league officials and the union would figure out how to extend contracts and manage all the salary cap and calendar tweaks needed to complete the season.

Far harder to imagine, though, is how the league can ensure a sufficient amount of safety from the spread of the coronavirus to secure the buy-in from players, coaches, referees, television crews and everyone else who will be needed to produce games without fans. Everyone wants the league to return as quickly as possible, but are players really going to accept being sequestered in a centralized location for an extended period to play game after game in this fashion? Maybe they will after two or three more months of the current gloom, but these are big asks.

The safest bet, as we finally exit the longest and saddest March this league (and sport) has ever endured: The draft will not happen on June 25 if the league musters tangible hope in coming weeks that it can play some regular-season games this summer. The draft order can’t be set until the regular-season standings are final.

Q: Couldn’t this be, like, the 100th take? — Andrew Goldwasser (Dallas)

Stein: Andrew was responding to my praise on social media for the broadcaster Mike Breen, who sank what I deemed to be a clutch jumper in a public service announcement for the league about the need for vigilant hand-washing and social distancing to fight the coronavirus.

I checked with Breen on Tuesday, and he said he needed only two takes. Breen’s daughter Nicole, who works for the N.B.A. in its youth development department, filmed the clip, which Breen said needed a redo because he flubbed a line on the first try after making that shot as well.

I wasn’t there to witness any of this, but I am vouching for the Knicks’ play-by-play man and ESPN veteran. Be a skeptic if you wish, but listen to the energy he brings in that 45-second speech. If he had missed a bunch of shots, forcing retakes, I don’t think we’d hear that sort of vitality in his voice.

Unfortunately I know this firsthand: Retakes bring you down. We’d be able to tell if Breen — who in February was named the Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2020 Curt Gowdy Award winner for broadcasting excellence — had been repeatedly clanking and starting over.

Only two father-and-son duos in Division I college basketball history have scored at least 2,000 points apiece: Dell Curry (Virginia Tech) and Stephen Curry (Davidson), and Steve Burtt Sr. and Steve Burtt Jr. — both of Iona. Burtt Sr. was featured in our recent article about how hard Covid-19 has hit the New York City basketball community.

A follow-up to last week’s note about San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich still needing 64 regular-season victories to pass his good friend Don Nelson (1,335 career wins) for the N.B.A. lead: Next in line behind Popovich (1,272) among active coaches is the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers with 938 — 397 behind Nelson. Rivers is tied for 11th in career wins with Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics coach. In other words, if Popovich, 71, doesn’t stick around long enough to get to 1,336, Nelson may hold that record for a while.

Three teams — the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors and the Los Angeles Lakers — were 23-7 since Jan. 1 when the N.B.A. season was indefinitely suspended on March 11, forging a three-way tie for the league’s best record in 2020. Next in line: Oklahoma City at 22-9.

For $67.5 million and multiple land swaps with Jack Kent Cooke in 1979, Jerry Buss purchased the Lakers, the N.H.L.’s Los Angeles Kings and the Forum sports arena, which hosted both teams. Forty-one years later, buying the Forum alone cost the Clippers’ Steve Ballmer $400 million last week.

Your humble newsletter curator has been home for 18 consecutive nights in March. This is believed to be some sort of personal record in adulthood.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@marcsteinnba). Send any other feedback to [email protected].


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