The COVID Vaccine and the NBA Feeling Like Itself Again

As this goes to press, my arm hurts like hell at the injection site where I got my second dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine a couple of days ago. I woke up this morning feeling like I’d been hit by a car; that was apparently what the great random number generator that powers the universe rolled on the dice for me.

But as I shook it off, I read a report in the New York Times that suggested that the US Centers for Disease Control is finally coming around to the idea that fully vaccinated people are safer than the government has been willing to commit to saying since the whole vaccination program began.

Risk of transmission outdoors is near nil. Risk of transmission between fully-vaccinated people indoors, even in crowded settings, seems to be well within the normal risks of everyday life—the whole “just because people are occasionally killed by cars doesn’t mean we should ban cars” argument that makes perfect sense to anyone who’s ever had to drive to work.

Meanwhile, an NBC Sports report from April 27 quotes Adam Silver as saying that over 70 percent of NBA players have received at least one vaccine dose, and furthermore, the league loosens its own COVID policy for any team that gets 85 percent of its players and staff vaccinated.

There was a lot of vaccine hesitancy among players in the early days of wide distribution of the shots—this is unsurprising for a majority-Black league that shares the common African-American distrust for large-scale government medical programs, a distrust rooted in two simple words, “Tuskegee Experiment”.

If anyone’s going to rag on them for that, it ain’t gonna be this white sportswriter, that’s for damn sure.

The very fact that vaccine hesitancy is declining in America except among the most hardcore of lunatic-fringe conspiracy theorists stands testament to the fact that, as of May 13, nearly half the population of the US—over 150 million people—have received at least one dose of vaccine, and (myself having joined the ranks of the latter group a day earlier) 119 million people are fully vaccinated, having received either the two-dose course from Pfizer and Moderna or the one-dose Johnson&Johnson option.

And with the CDC finally saying that such people can congregate indoors, you know what that means?

That’s right. Find 20,000 of them, pack ’em into an arena, and roll out the roundball to keep ’em entertained for two hours.

You get some time to think and reflect when you’re knocked on your ass by an illness (or, in a bit of ironic amusement, by a means of preventing a more serious illness.)

And the thing I thought of was what used to be an annual trip to Portland once a year for my beloved Indiana Pacers’ lone visit to Moda Center. My adopted hometown doesn’t have a team (thanks, Oklahoma City), but that doesn’t stop me finding some time and a few bucks for tickets, a night in a hotel, and spending money for a day trip in the city itself before the game.

Like most folks, I’ve been watching the NBA on League Pass and NBA TV and the national networks, and it just hasn’t been the same. Piped-in crowd noise in empty arenas just feels post-apocalyptic, like Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” in sports form.

Or, considering that the original was penned in the midst of the 1918 flu pandemic, perhaps Sara Teasdale’s poem of the same title in sports form.

It’s been an ever-present reminder of the devastation the pandemic has caused. The spring of 2020 without any of the cultural touchstones we’ve all come to share every spring since, in 1947, basketball and hockey playoffs have shared the spotlight. The last time a spring came and went without a winter-sports championship in North America was when the 1919 Stanley Cup Finals were called off without a winner due to an outbreak of influenza.

Last year, we got the Stanley Cup in September and the NBA Finals in October, but in both cases they were a long time coming after a seemingly endless wait where the mere existence of the playoffs was an open question.

And again, the empty arenas inside COVID bubbles were so deep in the uncanny valley that it hardly even felt like watching sports.

The stage is set for a return to normalcy. By the time the hockey and basketball seasons start up again in the fall, there should be no barrier to having fans in the seats from coast to coast. Governors in red states are all but guaranteed to have completely lifted social-distancing rules and mask mandates by then; blue-state governors may lag behind, and we may see masks on fans in places like Staples Center and Chase Center considering California’s penchant for imposing restrictions on its citizens. But at some point a combination of hard science and pandemic fatigue coupled with a potential growing “who cares about them” attitude toward at-risk unvaccinated will get the masks off and the crowds in the seats.

Go over to YouTube and cue up any NBA highlight from before March 11, 2020. Could be Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce shot in the 2019 East semis—the one time an arena going so quiet you could hear all four bounces on the rim clear as day was actually supposed to happen—could be the old days of Michael Jordan.

The point is, that’s what sports is supposed to be. Not just the feats of athleticism on the court or field but the electric atmosphere of (as boxing announcer Michael Buffer so famously mentions when he introduces a fight) “the thousands in attendance and the millions watching from around the world.”

Let’s get ready to make the arenas rumble again. I got my shots. Plenty of other folks have gotten theirs. I would recommend all of you folks reading go get yours.

And I’ll see you at the game.