BOSTON—The Phoenix Suns were dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak as their season collapsed, multiple sources said Athleticismwith six people – including one player – testing positive either late in the Western Conference semifinals or the day after Game 7.
With their season on the line, the Suns were destroyed at home by the Dallas Mavericks 123-90 on May 15. A Phoenix assistant coach, Bryan Gates, tested positive after Game 6 and missed the final game, while at least some of the other Suns told co-workers they weren’t feeling well heading into Game 7. .
The player tested positive the day after Game 7. Athleticism does not identify individuals who test positive for COVID-19 unless their names are made public by the team, league or individuals themselves. The others who tested positive were support staff.
In the wake of the outbreak, the Suns were unable to hold end-of-season meetings between players and coaches at their training facility and instead held a team-wide meeting via Zoom. . The information in this story has been confirmed by more than half a dozen sources.
The ordeal raised questions internally about whether they were following league rules on testing. The NBA requires all team personnel, regardless of their vaccination status, to test for the virus if they have symptoms, and they cannot play, train or be at team facilities if they are positive.
The Suns, who privately insist there was no breach of protocol, declined to comment publicly on the story.
“I think it’s very clear that no one wanted to report things,” said a source with knowledge of the Suns’ positive tests who was not authorized to speak about it publicly. “And that’s where it gets risky.”
A league spokesperson said Athleticism, “The NBA has seen no evidence to suggest rule violations by Suns players or staff.” A league source added that the NBA could still review the situation if new information emerges.
The Mavericks had also been concerned about the rumblings, with a Dallas source indicating that talk of a rumored Suns outbreak began as early as Game 5.
“(COVID-19) was on everyone’s mind,” a source familiar with the matter said.
In that sense, the Suns are certainly not alone.
From the Orlando bubble of the NBA in 2020 until this postseason, a lot has changed in how the league handles the virus. Gone are the days of players and coaches being tested multiple times a day, with the league-wide goal of keeping COVID-19 completely at bay.
The league has moved to a more rampant approach, with teams having to test a staff member, coach or player only if they show symptoms. It is basically an honor system.
Since the start of the 2022 playoffs, there have been high-profile cases of key players and coaches missing games due to COVID-19. LA Clippers star Paul George was absent for the team’s must-see Play-In match against New Orleans after being tested before the game when he experienced moderate to severe symptoms. “He was screwed,” a source said of George. Bulls star Zach LaVine missed Game 5 of Chicago’s first-round series after the team announced he had tested positive for the virus.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed two games in the Western semifinals after testing positive, and Celtics forward Al Horford was out for Game 1 of the Eastern Finals with a positive test. They are now both participating in the NBA Finals. The virus also cost ABC game announcer Mike Breen several games and analyst Jeff Van Gundy was out of Game 1 of the Finals.
“I felt like I had a bad cold, sore throat, cough, congestion,” Kerr said. “I felt like I could have coached, but obviously I didn’t want to make anyone else sick. So as soon as I tested positive, it was like, okay, you’re got out of here.
Team personnel may be subject to close contact testing of someone with COVID-19 if they have not received all of their vaccinations. ABC/ESPN talent closest to the players (on-field or one-on-one interviews) during the final must pass a test to gain access, regardless of their vaccination status.
The quickest route to a return of COVID-19 is to produce two negative tests 24 hours apart – which is how Horford returned to the Celtics for Game 2 of the Conference Finals.
Dr. Robby Sikka, former vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Wolves who has consulted with the NBA on COVID-19 treatment and protocols, said the rules the league still has in place should remain.
Sikka, Denver Broncos doctor from the NFL and founder of the COVID-19 Sports and Society Workgroup, said the combination of vaccines and antiviral drugs like Paxlovid help players recover from the virus faster, preventing symptoms from lingering and allowing them to test negative sooner. But he’s worried about the start of the next NBA season, when the effectiveness of recalls wanes.
“We’re talking about a disease that not only has an impact on life and death, but it’s a disease that potentially spreads quickly through a population,” Sikka said. “We probably have to start thinking, are people going to get a recall before next season? Are we going to have more treatments available or are we going to use Paxlovid more aggressively? These are the questions we should ask ourselves.
“The good news is and I’ll just say this, because I know from talking to people associated with both teams in the final that you have teams that take this very seriously,” Sikka said. “They are trying to prevent the spread within their organizations because they want to be able to play in the final.”
Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s “flu game,” when he scored 38 points in a Bulls victory in the NBA Finals. Utah messing with what was believed at the time to be the flu (which is highly contagious) but was actually food poisoning from bad pizza.
One day we will have a “COVID-19 game”, whether or not the league relaxes its rules.
“That’s a really interesting question,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said last week. “I don’t know if it’s analogous or not, (but) there are other viruses, where the flu, for example, historically it’s a decision of a player and a team or a player’s doctor as to whether it’s appropriate for them to be on the floor. At the end of the day, I think that’s a bigger issue than the NBA. I don’t think we’re looking to be a pioneer there.
“I think we want to be aware of the impact an infected player can have not only on other players on the pitch, but also on people in the arena.”
(Photo: Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)
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