OKLAHOMA CITY — On Monday night, the Utah Jazz had to wait for their daily coronavirus test results before heading to an empty arena.
Regular temperature checks, designated socially distanced areas for eating, sanitizing and handwashing stations as well as the daily testing are all a part of normal life for NBA teams, much different from the last time the Jazz were in Oklahoma City.
On March 11, the Jazz were in Oklahoma City and had very little to worry about beyond a few extra precautions being taken as the coronavirus began to enter the consciousness of Americans. Players were discouraged from high-fiving fans and locker rooms were closed to the media.
But Rudy Gobert woke up feeling a little under the weather, and as a precaution did not go to the arena for the morning shootaround and later stayed at the team hotel as he awaited a test result for COVID-19.
Seconds before the game was set to tip off, a positive result came back, the game was called off and the NBA season was suspended.
“You can’t help but but remember that evening,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said Monday. “It was significant for both teams, really for the league. The contrast between that point and where we are now — the season hiatus, the bubble, coming back and playing again — it seems like a lifetime since that happened.”
Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault was an assistant coach for OKC under Billy Donovan last season when the Jazz game was called off.
“I mean, it’s obviously a really significant night in an eerie way,” Daigneault said before the game on Monday. “We’re glad to be back playing...we’re extremely grateful to be back playing and obviously excited to have Utah here and have the ball go up in the air this time.”
Though it was in a mostly empty arena, with the entire lower bowl covered in tarps, the Jazz and Thunder successfully tipped off Monday, more than nine months after that fateful night in March when everything changed.
Donovan Mitchell, who also returned a positive COVID-19 test after the whole team was tested in the locker room at the arena in March, said that it was weird coming back to OKC and that he even ended up with the exact same room at the same hotel as the last time he was here.
“It’s kind of crazy it’s the same year, like it’s still the same year from all that,” Mitchell said. “It’s feels like it was forever ago.”
Time has certainly seemed to slow in 2020.
“It’s interesting to think back on it. There was a lot of confusion at the time and uncertainty,” Daigneault said. “It was when you know the virus was just starting to gain steam in our country, and obviously that was kind of the first domino. That game was the first domino, and a lot of other things got knocked over as a result of that experience.”
When Gobert walked on to the court to warm up on Monday night, it had been nearly two years since he had been inside Chesapeake Energy Arena. In the time since, he’d become the first NBA player to test positive for the virus, leading to the stoppage of play. He became a de facto patient zero, and while supported and cared for by the Jazz and those close to him, he has said he received death threats and ill wishes from people who didn’t know him at all.
“Rudy was vilified,” Snyder said Monday. “In hindsight, I think we have a greater understanding of the virus, and I think Rudy recognizes fully when I say that there were some mistakes that were made, but those mistakes have been made over and over again by different people, all of us, and that’s kind of the educational process that’s accompanied the spread of this virus.”
On Monday night, the Jazz will go through sanitizing, symptom checks and the NBA protocols put in place before getting on a flight back to Salt Lake City. Life will continue with daily testing and limited interaction with anyone outside of the team.
With the knowledge gained over the last nine months, life has changed significantly for everyone, and the NBA is certainly not the same as it once was. It’s hard not to be reminded of that night in March when everything came to a grinding halt. At least this time, with the Jazz in Oklahoma City, the ball went up.