‘I have to play for my sanity’: how the NBA reacted when it came to a halt
A new HBO documentary explores the ripple effects when Covid-19 shut down the NBA just as racial justice came to the fore in the United States Chris Paul plays a large part in HBO’s new documentary. Photograph: Rick Scuteri/AP Chris Paul dribbles on. The 11-time All-Star point guard – or, “Point God,” as he is known – is midway through his 16th NBA season and his first with the Phoenix Suns, his fifth team and third in three years. The Suns are currently flying high in the Western Conference after a decade of disappointment, and have resumed playing at home before modest crowds of 3,000, in deference, of course, to the coronavirus.It would be incorrect to say that Paul, the focal point of The Day Sports Stood Still, a documentary that premieres on Wednesday on HBO in the US, is slowly returning to “normal,” whatever that is. Paul’s career, and his life as a 35-year-old husband and father, was altered dramatically by the virus, even though he has not caught it himself. He was hardly alone. “It’s amazing to see that Covid just ended up being that starting point – but it’s definitely not the ending point,” Paul says towards the close of the 85-minute documentary.Paul has also been president of the National Basketball Players Association for nearly eight years, a role that turned out to be vital as the NBA worked its way back from the shutdown caused by Covid-19. (That was just 12 months ago, believe it or not. Play resumed in August, less than eight months ago.)The Day Sports Stood Still, directed by Antoine Fuqua with Paul as one of four executive producers, is not quite fitting as a title, because it covers the nine months between the time play stopped in the NBA and when the 2020-21 season began in December. It also includes interviews with several athletes outside basketball, which tangles the narrative in places.It turns out that the coronavirus altered the careers and lives of many other world-class athletes too, none perhaps more than Karl-Anthony Towns, the Minnesota Timberwolves star who lost his mother and six other family members to the virus. Towns’ poignant Instagram message about the disease before his mother’s death has been viewed 3.5m times. In an interview for the documentary, Towns said, “If I saved one life, that’s all I ever wanted to do in that video, because I didn’t know if I was going to be losing one.”Towns, who later was diagnosed with the disease (but has recovered and returned to the Timberwolves), would add, “This was the first time I had to slow down and say, ‘What’s really important in my life?’” Others not as directly affected by the virus, like Paul, were asking the same question. Paul was at the arena to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder on 11 March 2020, when the team’s game against Utah was delayed, then suspended, because Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for Covid-19. “I was like everyone else – what the hell comes next?” Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, says in the documentary. It is safe to say that nearly everyone wanted to resume play as soon as possible, providing that the environment would be safe. That meant games being played in a controlled “bubble,” without fans, which officials conceded could affect the quality of play itself. “It’s the music of the game,” the NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, says of crowds in the documentary.Successfully completing the NBA season at Florida’s Disney World would turn out to be the most straightforward part of the NBA’s comeback, at least psychologically. First, the coronavirus disproportionally affected Black people in the United States – and Black people comprise a vast majority of players in the league.Only two days after the Thunder-Jazz game, Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Louisville, Kentucky, died in a barrage of police gunfire. Two months later, George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, was killed by police. Their names became national – and later international– rallying cries protesting police brutality against Black Americans. Paul said Floyd’s death changed the conversation.The players wanted to go back: “I have to play for my sanity – I love to compete that much,” Paul says. The players largely felt it was worth returning to action even though they would play on what amounted to a sound stage and would be separated from their families for months. Paul brought a keyboard to Florida so he could learn his daughter’s favorite Lizzo song.Three weeks after the NBA season resumed, however, Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot and seriously wounded by police in front of his children in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Doc Rivers, then the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, tearfully said in a memorable interview, “Why do we keep loving this country, and our country doesn’t love us back?”NBA playoff games were postponed after the Milwaukee Bucks, who play near Kenosha, decided to boycott a game, with the WNBA, NHL and MLS also suspending action. That could have become another Day Sports Stood Still, and Paul had to think hard if even a delayed season in a theme park with no fans was really worth continuing.You won’t find a spoiler here about how he and other players arrived at their decision, but it became a very personal choice. Not even a year has passed since, so it may be a bit too early to say it was the correct choice, especially with the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter still topics of interest. But they seem to be content with their choices.“I don’t think anybody really realized the effect sports have on us all,” Paul says near the end of the documentary.But he also adds that sports did not feel quite the same to them, either. Nothing else does, for that matter. Some day, ferocious professional and big-time collegiate games and matches are very likely to be played before loud capacity crowds again. Paul, acquired in a preseason deal with Oklahoma City, is an All-Star again.He always has played with uncommon poise and been a dependable team leader. He dribbles on, indeed. But his goals have been reset – as they have been for most of us, when you think about it.