SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt examines the latest example of the NBA being a league that encourages its players and coaches to speak up and use their platform, this time in the aftermath of the riots at the Capitol building.
Oklahoma City Thunder guard George Hill pushed back against the stricter COVID-19 safety protocols the NBA announced Tuesday, wondering why the season would continue if such measures were necessary.
“I’m a grown man, so I’m gonna do what I wanna do,” Hill said after the Thunder’s 112-102 loss to the Spurs. “If I wanna go see my family, I’m gonna go see my family. They can’t tell me I have to stay in the room 24/7. If it’s that serious then maybe we shouldn’t be playing. It’s life. No one’s gonna be able to just cancel their whole life for this game.”
The NBA and National Basketball Players Association agreed to several new protocols. Among them, as Hill referenced, is that players and staff are required to quarantine at home or in their hotel rooms when they’re not practicing or playing games. Exceptions include outside exercise and essential activities, like grocery shopping.
When on the road, players and staff are prohibited from leaving their hotel or having guests in their hotel rooms.
“We wanna play the game,” said Hill, a 13-year NBA veteran. “That’s what we love to do. But at the same time if we’re casting all these rules, this and that, maybe they need to reevaluate what we’re doing.”
Oklahoma City Thunder guard George Hill pushed back against the NBA’s stricter COVID-19 safety protocols. (Photo: Alonzo Adams, USA TODAY Sports)
The new protocols will also affect game-day norms.
Players must “avoid extended socializing” before and after the game and limit their interactions to elbow or fist bumps.
“I just don’t understand some of the rules as far as we can sweat 48 minutes with the guy next to us and the team next to us, but we can’t talk to him after the game,” Hill said. “It makes no sense.”
Players on the bench must also wear masks at all times. Players who check out of the game can sit in “cool down chairs” at least 12 feet from the bench where masks are not required, but once cooled down, that player must return to the bench and wear a mask until he re-enters the game.
Masks must always be worn in the locker room and during strength and conditioning activities.
“It’s challenging, obviously, not being used to all the protocols and all the rules, but for me personally it’s what’s necessary,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of this COVID thing. If it means wearing my mask on the bench the whole time then it is what it is and I gotta do it.”
Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo downplayed the challenges of adhering to the protocols.
“The rules are set, and it’s either you follow them or you don’t,” Diallo said. “If you don’t follow them there’s gonna be consequences to that, and if you do follow them hopefully God willing we’ll stay healthy and we’ll keep playing the game that we love.”
Coaches and staff must also wear masks at all times during games. Pregame meetings in the locker room can last no longer than 10 minutes.
“The NBA has protocols in place to prioritize the safety of everybody,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “The NBA has changed that appropriately over time, and we’re just reactive to what the protocols are and we’re trying to be as compliant as we possibly can to keep everybody safe and to make sure we’re falling in the lines that the league is drawing. We knew going into the year it wasn’t going to be ideal, and it wasn’t always going to be easy.”
The Thunder’s season was impacted by the pandemic from Game 1, when the Rockets did not have the league-required eight available players to play.
Two Thunder players tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of training camp, but the Thunder hasn’t had any players miss a game due to what’s listed as “health and safety protocols.”
As of Wednesday morning, six NBA games have been postponed due to teams not having eight available players. The Celtics have had three straight games postponed.
“We’re at a point now that we have to reevaluate or the NBA has to reevaluate and see how everything is going,” Thunder center Al Horford said. “But more importantly we all have to continue to take care of ourselves and stay diligent, because this virus is not going anywhere.”