Suns' COVID-19 outbreak in playoffs raises questions about NBA protocols

Suns’ COVID-19 outbreak in playoffs raises questions about NBA protocols

BOSTON — The Phoenix Suns were managing a COVID-19 outbreak as their season fell apart, multiple sources told The Athleticwith six individuals—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. One Phoenix assistant coach, Bryan Gates, tested positive after Game 6 and missed the final game, while at least some of the other Suns indicated to colleagues they weren’t feeling well prior to Game 7.

The player tested positive the day after Game 7. The Athletic does not identify individuals who test positive for COVID-19 unless their names are made public by the team, league or the individuals themselves. The others who tested positive were support staffers.

As a result of the outbreak, the Suns could not hold season-ending exit meetings between players and coaches at their practice facility and instead conducted a team-wide meeting via Zoom. Information in this story was confirmed by more than a half-dozen sources.

The ordeal raised questions internally about whether they were following the league’s rules for testing. The NBA requires all team personnel, regardless of vaccine status, to test for the virus if they are experiencing symptoms, and they may not play, coach or be at team facilities if they test positive.

The Suns, who privately insisted there was no breach of protocol, declined to comment publicly for this story.

“I think it’s very clear that nobody wanted to report stuff,” said one source with knowledge of the Suns’ positive tests who was not authorized to speak publicly about them. “And this is where it gets dicey.”

A league spokesman told The Athletic, “The NBA has seen no evidence to suggest any rules violations by Suns players or staff.” A league source added the NBA could always revisit the situation if new information emerged.

The Mavericks had grown concerned about the rumblings too, with one Dallas source indicating the discussion about a rumored Suns outbreak began as early as Game 5.

“(COVID-19) was on everybody’s mind,” one source close to the situation said.

In that sense, the Suns certainly aren’t alone.

From the time of the NBA’s Orlando bubble in 2020 to this postseason, much has changed about the way the league handles the virus. Gone are the days when players and coaches were tested multiple times a day, with the league-wide goal of keeping COVID-19 completely out.

The league has transitioned to more of an endemic approach, with teams expected to test a staff member, coach or player only if they have symptoms. It is, in essence, an honor system.

Since the start of the 2022 postseason, there have been some high-profile cases of key players and coaches missing games due to COVID-19. LA Clippers star Paul George was out for the team’s must-win Play-In game against New Orleans after testing prior to the game when he experienced moderate to severe symptoms. “He was fucked up,” one source said of George. Bulls star Zach LaVine missed Game 5 of Chicago’s first-round series after the team announced he tested positive for the virus.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr missed two games in the Western semifinals after he tested positive, and Celtics forward Al Horford was out for Game 1 of the Eastern finals with a positive test. They are now both competing 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 I obviously didn’t want to get anyone else sick. So as soon as I tested positive, it was like all right, you’re out of here.”

Team personnel can be subjected to testing for close contact with someone with COVID-19 if they have not received all of their vaccine shots. Talent at ABC/ESPN with the closest proximity to players (on-court or one-on-one sitdown interviews) during the finals have to test to gain access, regardless of vaccine status.

The fastest route to a return from COVID-19 is by producing two negative tests 24 hours apart — which is how Horford returned to the Celtics for Game 2 of the conference finals.

Dr. Robby Sikka, a former vice president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves who consulted with the NBA on COVID-19 treatment and protocols, said the rules the league still has in place should remain.

Sikka, a physician for the Denver Broncos of the NFL and founder of the COVID-19 Sports and Society Workgroup, said the combination of vaccines and antiviral drugs like Paxlovid are helping players recover faster from the virus, preventing symptoms from lingering and allowing them to test negative sooner. But he is concerned about the start of the next NBA season, when the effectiveness of booster shots wanes.

“We’re talking about a disease that doesn’t just impact life and death, but this is a disease that potentially spreads rapidly throughout a population,” Sikka said. “We probably need to start thinking about, are people going to get a booster ahead of next season? Are we going to have more treatments available, or are we going to more aggressively use Paxlovid? Those are the questions that we should ask.

“The good news is and I’ll just say this, because I know from speaking to people associated with both of the teams in the finals, you have teams that are taking this very seriously,” Sikka said. “They are trying to prevent spread within their organizations because they want to be able to play in the finals.”

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Michael Jordan’s “flu game,” when he scored 38 points in a Bulls win in the NBA Finals over Utah playing with what at the time was believed to be the flu (which is highly contagious) but was actually food poisoning from bad pizza.

One day, we’ll have a “COVID-19 game,” whether or not the league further 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 been a determination from a player and team or player’s doctor as to whether it’s appropriate for them to be out on the floor. Ultimately, I think that’s a bigger issue than the NBA. I don’t think we’re looking to be a trendsetter there.

“I think we want to be mindful of an impact an infected player can have not just on other players on the floor but people in the arena.”

(Photo: Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)

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