NBA Season Like No Other: ‘One of the Worst, Strangest Years’

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It was a perfect moment for an imperfect season.

Anthony Davis rose for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in Game 2 of the N.B.A.’s Western Conference finals. He sank the shot, shouted “Kobe!” and ran into the arms of his elated Los Angeles Lakers teammates.

So much seemed packed into that seconds-long sequence. A team that had launched its championship chase amid a geopolitical storm in China. A game-winning shot in an empty arena, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” on the court. And a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the iconic Lakers star whose death in a helicopter crash in January rocked the league.

It was Sept. 20, about 12 months after the Lakers had first gathered to begin training for a season that would have normally concluded in June.

Nothing about the 2019-20 N.B.A. season was normal. There were tragedies and triumphs, setbacks and highlights. When play finally resumed in July after a four-month hiatus brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, it began in a so-called bubble: a self-contained, spectator-free campus at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., as the league — at no small cost — fought to the finish line.

Some things feel familiar: LeBron James is back in the N.B.A. finals for the 10th time. His Lakers, who have not won a title in 10 years, will face his former team the Miami Heat starting Wednesday. But familiar is not the same. This turbulent season has challenged how the world sees basketball and, perhaps, how basketball players see themselves.

In interviews, five players reflected on the season and all of its complexities, from injuries to grief to social justice protests.

“When you get hurt, you don’t leave the court and your life just resumes as normal.”

Draymond Green suddenly found himself in the role of leader of a struggling team after his Warriors teammate Stephen Curry was injured.
Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors familiarized himself with a new concept this season.

“Losing,” he said. “I hate losing. I’ve never lost in my life.”

It’s easy to forget, given the all-consuming weirdness of 2020, that the Warriors were the worst team in the league. Remember: The Warriors were coming off five consecutive trips to the finals, winning three championships. The word “dynasty” was tossed around. They employed Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and (until this season) Kevin Durant, three of the most dynamic scorers of their generation.

But the magic of that run vanished as they fell to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 finals. The Warriors were undone by a series of calamities that, in hindsight, foreshadowed some of the coming challenges for the league as a whole. Durant ruptured his right Achilles’ tendon in Game 5, then Thompson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in Game 6. Both players sat out the 2019-20 season — Durant after joining the Nets in free agency, Thompson after signing a new five-year, $190 million deal with the Warriors.

“I think the one thing people don’t realize is that when you play the sport we play — or any sport, for that matter — when you get hurt, you don’t leave the court and your life just resumes as normal,” Green said. “You leave the court, and you’re still hurt. So I care about that guy and where he’s going to be mentally, because he has to live that every day. He has to go through the extremes of the rehab process.”

Credit…Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Curry had to go through it, too: He broke his left hand four games into the season and missed about four months before returning for one game in early March, less than a week before the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic. As for Green, he gritted through 43 games as he came to terms with his new role as a mentor to younger teammates.

“Early on, when I realized that we weren’t that good, I tried to readjust my mind-set and accept the reality,” he said. “But losing is still losing.”

Unlike Curry, who acknowledged that he had “major FOMO” — fear of missing out — as 22 teams congregated in the bubble without him, Green said he had no such qualms. The Warriors had crammed an absurd amount of basketball into the previous five seasons, including 105 playoff games.

In lieu of a trip to Walt Disney World, Green said he had been able to spend more time with his family at home in Southern California. He has appeared on TNT’s “Inside the N.B.A.” as a guest analyst. And he has gained a bit of distance as the Warriors look ahead to next season.

“A much-needed break,” he said. “It’s been rejuvenating for sure.”

“Everyone was wondering whether we would play the games.”

Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Marooned inside the Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, the Lakers tried to occupy themselves. They played music. They hung out together in their hotel rooms. There was a team dinner on the 57th floor and meetings with league officials. But mostly, they waited.

“You just felt stuck,” Jared Dudley said.

Almost exactly a year ago — in October 2019 — the Lakers traveled to China for a pair of preseason games against the Nets. Dudley, a forward who was on the cusp of his 13th N.B.A. season, recalled his excitement. He had never been to China. He had played the previous season with the Nets and was new to the Lakers, a team that had reshaped itself over the off-season by trading for Davis.

“We were still getting to know each other,” Dudley said. “We weren’t really close yet as a team.”

They were about to spend more time together than any of them could have imagined. Shortly after the Lakers and the Nets arrived, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, angering the Chinese government. Public appearances for both teams were canceled. Chinese broadcasters announced that they were pulling N.B.A. games off the air. And the league, which has vast business interests in China, grappled with the situation.

“Everyone was wondering whether we would play the games,” Dudley said. “We couldn’t even practice.”

As the days passed, Dudley discovered that he was one of the team’s earliest risers — along with James. Dudley figured it was because they both had children.

“That’s when I started getting close with ‘Bron,” Dudley said, “because we were both up at 7 in the morning, eating breakfast, while everyone else was sleeping.”

Credit…Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Credit…Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Once they returned to Los Angeles, the Lakers found themselves embroiled in more controversy after James criticized Morey, telling reporters that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand” and that he could have endangered the players. James was widely rebuked for his comments.

The league, meanwhile, continued to deal with the fallout. In February, Commissioner Adam Silver said he expected the N.B.A. to lose “hundreds of millions of dollars” because of its rift with the Chinese government — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic wreaked even greater havoc on the league’s finances.

The twist for the Lakers, Dudley said, was that their trip to China brought them closer. Kobe Bryant’s death in January only tightened those bonds.

“This will go down as one of the worst, strangest years,” Dudley said. “But I don’t know if I’ve ever been with a closer team because of the circumstances. Like, we’ve been hanging out nearly every single day — and it goes all the way back to when we were in China.”

The Lakers started their season in relative isolation, at their hotel in Shanghai, and now they will finish it in similar fashion, locked down in the league’s bubble outside of Orlando, Fla., where a championship is within reach. The strange symmetry has not been lost on the players.

“I’ll always remember being so bored but so blessed to be able to play basketball,” Dudley said. “A gift and a curse.”

“I stayed under his wing. I really did.”

Credit…Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

The former N.B.A. forward Caron Butler thought back to a conversation he had with Kobe Bryant, his friend and one-time teammate.

“He was talking about how everything that he was criticized for during the course of his career, he was applauded for after he retired — and even on his way out,” Butler said.

Consider Bryant’s final game with the Lakers in 2016. After operating as such a polarizing player for so much of his career because of his ball dominance and improbable shots, he stayed true to form in the end — and was celebrated for it. He cluttered the box score with 60 points while shooting 22 of 50 from the field as fans and friends and family chanted his name at Staples Center, the team’s arena in downtown Los Angeles.

Even now, Butler can sense in young players shades of Bryant’s influence: the way they channel his creativity and his drive, their reverence for the “Mamba mentality” and the self-assurance that Bryant embodied.

“So many people try to emulate his game and his skill-set and all of the things that he brought to the table,” Butler said. “He impacted all of us in different ways.”

On the morning of Jan. 26, Butler was in Atlanta to help broadcast a Washington Wizards game for the team’s local television affiliate. He was about to head out for a jog when he received a phone call from Molly Carter, one of Bryant’s longtime business associates. Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, had died in a helicopter crash outside of Los Angeles. Seven others on board were also killed. It was devastating, Butler said. Bryant was 41.

“We spent a ton of time with each other and on the phone together, and our families got tight,” Butler said.

Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

After spending the first two seasons of his career with the Heat, Butler was traded to the Lakers in 2004 as a part of the deal that sent Shaquille O’Neal to Miami. The Lakers struggled that season, but it helped shape Butler’s career.

“Kobe taught me about preparation, about having an appropriate mind-set, about developing your skills and adding counter moves,” he said. “He was always talking about how you can apply these methods to your life, because there are so many parallels. I stayed under his wing. I really did.”

Bryant also urged Butler to kick an addiction.

“He tried to get me off Mountain Dew, man,” Butler said. “I used to drink Mountain Dew all the time. He’d get on the bus and I’d be hiding my drink.”

Butler went on to become a two-time All-Star with the Wizards. “When I went to Washington, I had some of the best years of my career just solely based off what I learned with the Lakers and from playing with Kobe Bryant,” Butler said.

Butler was among those who attended the public memorial for Bryant at Staples Center on Feb. 24. Bryant’s death was a crushing blow for the league, which was still mourning another loss. David Stern, the former commissioner, died on Jan. 1, weeks after a brain hemorrhage. He was 77.

“His vision to grow the game, especially from an international standpoint, was remarkable,” Butler said.

The Lakers have continued to invoke the memory of Bryant, ensuring that his presence endures through the league’s longest year.

“There’s just so much we don’t know about this virus.”

Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

When Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11, it was a watershed moment for the league, and the country.

“We didn’t really know what to do,” Mo Bamba of the Orlando Magic said. “Honestly, it felt like a dream or some kind of a nightmare.”

The next morning, Bamba and his teammates gathered in the locker room at their home arena, where team officials told them that the season would be on hiatus for at least a month and that they would not have access to the practice facility.

A few days later, a small U-Haul pulled up to Bamba’s apartment building full of equipment from the team’s weight room: dumbbells, a bench, an exercise bike and yoga mats. The team’s strength and conditioning coach also gave Bamba, a second-year center, a detailed program to follow. Bamba decided to make the most of his time away from the game.

“I told myself that I was going to make as many gains as possible,” Bamba said.

He also welcomed a guest: his mother, Aminata Johnson, who moved in with him while he quarantined at home.

Over the next two-and-a-half months, Bamba worked out for two to three hours a day, packing 28 pounds onto his 7-foot frame while increasing his body-fat percentage by just 2.2 percent, he said. For a player who had labored to find his niche since entering the league as a lottery pick, he took it as a sign of progress. He was building the sort of bulk he needed to withstand the rigors of the modern game.

“I felt a real difference,” he said.

As the season restart approached, Bamba drove his mother home to Atlanta — “I’m never going to kick my mom out of my place, but she understood,” he said — before rejoining his teammates for workouts.

Credit…Mo Bamba

On June 11, he tested positive for the coronavirus. He shared the news with his teammates via a group text, then self-isolated for two weeks.

“I think my biggest reaction to it was a sense of frustration,” Bamba said, “because the season was starting back up and there went two weeks — two weeks of work that I could have been putting in with the team and with the coaches.”

He had no idea of the challenges ahead. Not long after the Magic moved into the bubble in early July, Bamba had a pair of false positive tests, he said, that sidelined him from practice. Once he was cleared to return, he struggled with his conditioning. He was short of breath and experienced muscle soreness. By mid-August, ahead of the Magic’s first-round playoff series against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the team sent him home for additional medical testing for lingering adverse effects. His season was finished.

“There’s just so much we don’t know about this virus,” Bamba said. “They had to check everything, but it’s basically all been good news.”

More than 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. In April, the family of Jacqueline Towns, the mother of Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns, said in a statement that she had died from complications of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

Bamba, who first disclosed his illness and subsequent struggles in an interview with The Athletic, said he felt it was important to come forward.

“I wanted to help spread awareness about how serious this thing can be,” he said, “even for young athletes.”

“I just did what I thought was right.”

Credit…Kevin C. Cox/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Jerami Grant of the Denver Nuggets was hesitant about joining the restart when the N.B.A. announced its plans in June. Was it the right time to be playing basketball? He had only recently marched in Black Lives Matter protests in Washington, D.C., after George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by the police in Minneapolis.

In the end, it was a conference call with other players that persuaded Grant, a 26-year-old forward, to head to the bubble.

“The consensus was that we could come down here and use our platform to bring awareness to important issues,” Grant said, adding, “I thought I could do more here than back home.”

From the start, Grant used his platform to shine a spotlight on Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician from Louisville, Ky. Taylor, a Black woman, was killed in March when police officers who were executing a search warrant broke down the door to her apartment and shot her six times.

“I think anytime anyone in our community gets murdered for no reason, it impacts me deeply,” Grant said.

On July 15, during his first talk with the news media after entering the bubble, he declined to answer questions about basketball. Instead, he spoke about Taylor and about how the officers who had killed her were, in his words, “still roaming around free.”

Other players, including LeBron James, began following a similar blueprint, either by prefacing their news conferences with remarks about Taylor or by refusing to talk about basketball. As protests continued to roil the country, many players viewed their interactions with reporters as a means to address police brutality and systemic racism.

“I really didn’t know how it was going to go,” Grant said. “But I just did what I thought was right.”

After another police shooting in August — Jacob Blake, a Black man, was seriously injured after officers repeatedly shot him in the back in Kenosha, Wis. — the Bucks walked out of a playoff game with the Magic, spurring the N.B.A. to postpone the playoffs for several days. Other sports leagues soon experienced similar player-driven disruptions. In his own way, Grant had contributed to a larger movement.

“At the same time, I don’t think it’s new to sports,” Grant said. “Athletes like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were speaking out as activists a long time ago. But as a whole group, I don’t think the N.B.A. has ever seen this. And we still have a long way to go.”

Last week, just hours after a grand jury in Kentucky chose not to indict the two officers who shot Taylor, Grant said he was disheartened but not surprised.

“The fear that you have as a Black kid is present whether anybody else knows it or not,” he said. “Whether it’s seeing a cop car — or driving, period. You can always get pulled over. Just the fear. I think walking around with that fear is a burden in itself.”

There is little doubt that Grant and other players, in both the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A., helped give Taylor’s case greater visibility. ESPN, for example, ran the news about the grand jury’s decision on its ticker. Effecting actual change is a different story, and Grant said he was aware of “how the world works.” But athletes, he said, are only beginning to harness their collective influence.

“We have a lot more power,” Grant said, “than we think.”

Latest posts