Houston, we have a Covid-19 problem

NEW YORK • In an immediate blow to the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) attempt to stage a season without the protection of a restricted-access bubble, league officials were forced to postpone Houston’s season opener on Wednesday against Oklahoma City Thunder when the Rockets were unable to field the required minimum of eight players in uniform.

On just the second night of the 2020-21 season, an announcement that the game would be postponed “in accordance with the league’s health and safety protocols” came less than three hours before the game’s tip-off in Houston.

Three Rockets players, according to the league, had coronavirus tests that were either positive or inconclusive, leading to the placement of four other Rockets players in quarantine after contact tracing.

In addition, Chris Clemons is injured, and All-Star James Harden was prevented from playing because of what the league termed “a violation” of its health and safety guidelines. The league later fined Harden US$50,000 (S$66,500) for attending “a private indoor party” on Monday; a video circulating this week showed him at an indoor venue without a mask.

The Rockets were one of six teams in the 30-team NBA scheduled to allow reduced-capacity crowds into their buildings at the start of the season.

Commissioner Adam Silver said in a series of interviews on Monday that the NBA was anticipating “bumps in the road along the way”, but being forced to order a postponement so soon illuminated the various complications it faces.

The NBA is trying to operate a contact sport played entirely indoors with mere 17-player rosters and frequent travel amid an unyielding pandemic.

No decision has been made about the Rockets’ next game tomorrow night at Portland.

Harden, who for weeks has been pushing behind the scenes for a trade, confirmed earlier on Wednesday in a since-deleted Instagram post that he recently attended an “event” to support a friend.

The league’s nearly 160 pages of health and safety guidelines prohibit players from going to bars, lounges or clubs this season, as well as from using public transportation and from attending indoor gatherings of more than 15 people.

Houston’s sudden shortage of players on Wednesday, however, stemmed largely from coronavirus concerns separate from those surrounding Harden.

ESPN reported that veterans John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Kenyon Martin Jr had gathered at an apartment away from the team’s facilities for haircuts. Wall and Cousins tested negative for the coronavirus, ESPN said, but Houston did not have eight players available for what was to be the team’s first game with Stephen Silas as their head coach.

Silver also said on Tuesday that with teams playing in their home arenas he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see postponements related to Covid-19. That was why the league released a schedule only for the first half of the season, with the second half slate to be filled in later.

“When you’re playing outside a bubble it’s almost impossible to avoid this virus,” he added.

The league reported zero Covid-19 cases after three months and 172 games in its Disney World “bubble” in Orlando, Florida last season.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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