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In our opinion: Welcome back, basketball

There’s reason for hope that live sports can unite the country in some form.

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Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) celebrates after the win as the Utah Jazz defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 128-120 in an NBA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Utah Jazz will take the court Thursday against the New Orleans Pelicans in the first NBA game since mid-March. It seems fitting that the Jazz, whose players’ contraction of COVID-19 initiated much of the national shutdown starting on March 11, will have the opportunity to spearhead the league’s return. It also offers respite from turbulent times.

Players and coaches have expressed concern that their return could distract from the nation’s pressing issues — social change, the pandemic and economic woes. But there’s reason for hope that live sports can, at its best, unite the country in some form.

There’s precedent for that. Both Major League Baseball and the NFL put their seasons on pause following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Ten days later, New York resumed major sporting events with a New York Mets-Atlanta Braves showdown. An eighth-inning, two-run homer from Mike Piazza resulted in a 3-2 victory for the Mets in their home stadium, handing a symbolic victory for the residents of New York City.

“I was glad to come through and give these people something to cheer for at last,” Piazza said after the game. “That’s why they came out, to be diverted from the sorrow and the loss.”

Nearly two decades later, the country wades through another moment of upheaval. Accompanying the global pandemic has come the bitter divisiveness of election-year politics. Racial inequality has forced the nation to take a hard look at its systems and practices. Public health measures have become community flashpoints. Economic survival feels out of reach for some. 

Most fans will find it hard to forget they’re in the middle of a pandemic. Empty bleachers, augmented seasons and real-time updates on players’ health ensure the country won’t overlook the severity of the situation. 

Major League Baseball is learning the hard way that returning to play amid a global health crisis is much easier said than done. Only days after the season began, the Miami Marlins experienced a COVID-19 outbreak even before they played a single home game.

The NBA’s “bubble” approach — isolating players, coaches and personnel in Orlando — has worked so far, as none have tested positive for the virus. If the NBA continues to avoid any outbreak, it may have the solution for mid-pandemic athletic competition. 

Obviously, the bubble approach is not feasible for college athletics or even some lower-budget professional leagues. Nonetheless, the NBA’s return comes at a time when America is exhausted. 

At the least, a bit of entertainment and a semblance of normalcy will buoy morale.

Whether you’ll be cheering for the Jazz, the Pelicans or any other team, the next several weeks provide an opportunity for Americans to link arms. They will be reminded that, even to a small degree, life moves on just as well as it adapts. And while the nation must not let a game distract from its serious debates, it could certainly use some friendly competition.

Welcome back, Jazz.