An international incident, a tragedy, and a global pandemic.
2019-20 has been a season the NBA would like to forget.
This season had plenty of reasons for the NBA to be excited about the future. One of the league’s most valuable franchises, the Los Angeles Lakers, was re-establishing as a Western Conference power. The city feud between the Lakers and Clippers looked as if it would finally take shape as a legitimate NBA rivalry. Giannis Antetokounmpo was leading the charge of the next class of NBA superstars.
These reasons for excitement are currently foiled by the COVID-19 global pandemic. The NBA was suspended on March 10, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, the remainder of the regular season and future playoff scenarios have been in limbo.
LeBron James held a video conference call with reporters on April 8, saying that it would be difficult to find any sense of closure if the ending of the current season were to happen before completion. James certainly makes a compelling argument for feeling that way.
In his age-35 season, James was averaging 27.5 points per game and 10.6 assists per game. He averaged 2.1 rebounds per game shy of a triple-double scoring line. Along with that, the Lakers held the best record in the Western Conference when the season was suspended, 5.5 games ahead of the second-place Clippers. The regular season’s conclusion was just over a month away.
“Everything that we’ve been going through this season, just the ups and downs – not only on the floor, but off the floor; everything that we’ve had to endure as the Laker faithful and us as players and the coaching staff and the organization, it’s been so much,” James said, via ESPN staff writer Dave McMenamin. “So, closure? No. But to be proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish to this point, I’ll be able to look back and be like, ‘Okay, we did something special in that period of time.”
James was alluding to the fact that the Lakers added several new players to their roster last offseason, including Anthony Davis, who was acquired in a blockbuster trade with the New Orleans Pelicans last summer. James said the team had a whole new coaching staff, led by new Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. This was a new system that held several players who were new additions. James said he didn’t think it was possible for a team with so many new pieces to come together as quickly as it did.
An incomplete ending would leave an absence of closure for not only James and his teammates, but also for the fans. Lakers fans haven’t seen their team hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy since 2010. Kobe Bryant, the superstar who played a large role in that 2010 title, was tragically killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. The Lakers legend took a flight on a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter with eight other passengers, including 13-year-old Gianna Bryant, Kobe’s oldest daughter.
The helicopter crashed and caught fire in Calabasas, Calif., that morning. It was reported a few hours later by TMZ, who received scrutiny for reporting the news before the Los Angeles County coroner’s office could identify the crash victims. The victims were identified, and the news sent a shocking ripple effect across the entire world. A role model loved by so many was taken entirely too soon.
A while before that, things got off to a bit of a rocky start for the NBA after a single tweet ignited an international incident. Protestors held pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong for several months. The protests started with an incendiary extradition bill. That bill was pulled back after several months of protests, but the demonstrations continued, which led to violent clashes with police.
In October, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted an image that showed support for the Hong Kong protestors. One person in America freely showing support for demonstrators in another country should have no impact on a foreign government, right? Wrong, in this case.
The image bore a symbol of a Hong Kong activist group. Included in the image were the words “FIGHT FOR FREEDOM STAND WITH HONG KONG.”
— Norman Hermant (@NormanHermant) October 7, 2019
The tweet quickly went viral. It caught the attention of social media users in China, who quickly sent messages of disgust and violent threats to Morey. Things gradually got worse.
The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), whose president is former Rockets fan favorite Yao Ming, announced it was halting exchanges and cooperation with the Rockets. This prompted reactions from both the Rockets and the NBA. Houston owner Tilman Fertitta said Morey’s views do not represent the Rockets, and that the team’s presence in Tokyo shows it is dedicated to promoting the NBA internationally.
The NBA did its own damage control, tweeting on Oct. 6 that Morey’s tweet was “regrettable,” and that he deeply offended basketball fans in China. Basketball is the most popular sport in the country, which has a partnership with the NBA. That partnership was put in jeopardy, however, when several Chinese broadcasters threatened to not show NBA games. The Chinese consulate in Houston even issued a response.
Things continued to get worse. On Oct. 8, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA would not censor employees. China became even more aggressive with its response. The Lakers and Brooklyn Nets were scheduled to play a preseason game in China. Meet-and-greets with players were canceled, and all references to the NBA were removed.
In America, a CNN reporter was not allowed to ask NBA players a question about the situation during a press conference. In Philadelphia, two people were escorted out of the Wells Fargo Center for voicing support for Hong Kong during an exhibition game between the 76ers and a basketball team from China on Oct. 10.
The situation had players, the NBA, businesses and even U.S. politicians taking sides.
Things on this front have been quiet for the past several months. The 2019-20 NBA season started without a hitch, and China had to turn its attention to a virus that quickly grew into global pandemic, the one that currently has the NBA season suspended.
The NBA is currently exploring options in an effort to finish out the regular season and have playoffs. Players want to get back on the court. Fans want to watch basketball again. The longer time goes by, the more the anticipation about how this will play out builds.
If the worst were to happen, the one silver lining in this is that the NBA can move past the stress and heartbreak from off-court events as it prepares for the 2020-21 season.