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What a long, strange 12 months it’s been for the Utah Jazz

Yes, it’s been a year since the NBA indefinitely suspended the 2020 season. What has been learned — and where is the league headed from here?

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder meets with Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan and officials before before a game was postponed in Oklahoma City, Wednesday, March 11, 2020.
Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman via Associated Press

It’s hard to look back over the past year and explain what’s happened succinctly and tie a nice bow on it. There are just some things that can’t be wrapped up so easily.

It’s been a year since Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, an event that, for many, was the first domino to fall in our lives being flipped upside down. It’s been a year since Gobert received death threats for touching some microphones and voice recorders. It’s been a year since words and phrases like quarantine, PPE, nasal swab, contact tracing and social distancing were new to our collective vernacular.

It was March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. Some NBA teams were already making plans to play upcoming games in fanless arenas, something that at the time seemed so foreign. Still, things felt pretty normal right up until the moment the Jazz were set to tip off against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

That night, Gobert’s positive test result came back and the Jazz’s game against Oklahoma City was postponed. Shortly after that, the NBA announced the season had been indefinitely suspended. The team spent hours at the arena, quarantined before being tested while team personnel worked through chaos to find lodging and arrange travel back to Salt Lake City.

The next morning, Donovan Mitchell became the second NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus.

As more sports leagues suspended play and large gatherings were canceled in the days that followed, that night in OKC grew in significance. Meanwhile, rumors swirled about tension between Mitchell and Gobert. With the sports world brought to a screeching halt, and the Jazz at the center of what led to the stoppage, speculation and rumor ruled the day.

“The narrative was so compelling, particularly given COVID-19,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And then no one’s playing, so a lot of attention was given to us really as a microcosm, and those two guys in particular. You watch everybody play right now, you watch those two guys play and, you know, that’s a long time ago. Literally and figuratively.”

As the world grappled with how to deal with a virus that was taking lives at an alarming rate, the NBA worked for months to find a way to finish out the 2019-20 season.

Utah Jazz’s head coach Quin Snyder, left, speaks with Donovan Mitchell during game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Ashley Landis, Pool, Associated Press

The Orlando bubble idea was coming into form, but the Jazz were dealt another blow when Bojan Bogdanovic had season-ending wrist surgery.

The league’s top teams headed to Florida during a time of civil unrest. While the pandemic was still raging, protests erupted worldwide in an effort to combat racial injustice. The NBA once again came to a halt as players tried to find a way to impact change.

After the conclusion of the 2019-20 playoffs, the NBA sprinted to get the 2020-21 season up and running. Contract extensions for both Gobert and Mitchell helped to put to bed concerns about any lingering tension between the two, and the Jazz have rocketed to the top of the league standings.

But today there are still empty arenas. The coronavirus is still impacting everything that the players are able to do. There have been games postponed due to COVID-19 protocols and contact tracing. And while it does seem that things are getting better and that normal life is just around the corner, a year removed from that night in OKC, there are still reminders that “normal” might never be the same.

“Man, it seems like yesterday us being in Oklahoma City and going through what we had to go through as a team, as a league, as a nation,” Mike Conley said. “Now that we’re a year removed and saw the ups and downs of what the pandemic has brought, for so many people and for myself, it just just speaks to the resiliency of us as people, as humans, as players, as citizens. I think everybody has had to kind of be stripped down to the ground level and self reflect during this time so it’s been a trying time but you know, one in which we’ve learned a lot about ourselves.”

Education and growth

I’m a firm believer that humans never stop learning, but there are certainly times in life when you really have to ramp things up.

I was in OKC on that March 11. I was with the team in the arena for hours waiting to be tested and find out what the next steps would be. We all received a ton of information from the CDC and Oklahoma State Department of Health officials. The next day we got even more information from the Utah Department Health and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

The past year has been a crash course in how the coronavirus is transmitted, what respiratory droplets are, what can be done to help slow the spread of the virus and now mRNA vaccines.

The last year has also provided the opportunity to learn about how we deal with trauma, grief, adversity, isolation and everything else that the pandemic has presented.

“There was a lot of time to reflect on a lot of different things,” Mitchell said. “It allowed us to take a step back, allowed me to do that. And on top of that we learned a lot about different things. I’ve learned about people.”

All of that learning has led to a tremendous amount of growth. With the Jazz placed firmly under a microscope when the NBA shut down, they were forced to confront a lot of things. They had to deal with tensions within the team, they had to deal with the temporary loss of one of their best players and they had to do it all first from a distance and then in extremely close proximity within the NBA bubble.

“Guys have grown closer, and the team’s grown closer as a result of everything that we’ve been through,” Snyder said.

Once the team was in Orlando, playing some of the best basketball it had played all year, there was another hit. The Jazz blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round of the playoffs against the Denver Nuggets.

Utah Jazz’s Mike Conley attempts a shot in the final seconds of a first-round NBA playoff game as Utah’s Royce O’Neale, Denver’s Gary Harris, left, Jamal Murray, bottom front and Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, right rear, look on, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The shot rimmed out and the Nuggets advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

Again there were questions about the future of Gobert and Mitchell with the Jazz and whether the Jazz would ever be able to become a legitimate contending team. After everything they’d gone through, they were unceremoniously sent packing earlier than expected.

“Every tough experience in life makes you grow,” Gobert said. “Everything you go through in life, I think that makes you or breaks you. How you’re able to handle it and grow from it, that’s what life is about.”

The future

There’s still a lot to be learned and a lot of lessons that we can take from the experiences of the past year and we aren’t quite out of the weeds yet.

This past weekend, the NBA held its annual All-Star Game in a mostly empty arena, with all of the All-Star events packed into one day. On the morning of the game it was announced that Philadelphia 76ers All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid came in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 and due to contact tracing they would not be able to take part in the festivities.

The NBA is about to embark on the second half of a truncated season with the hope of soon being able to bring more fans back into the fold and get things back to a normal schedule.

“I’m fairly optimistic at this point that we will be able to start (the 2021-22 season) on time,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We have roughly half of our teams that have fans in their arenas right now. If vaccines continue on the pace they are, and they continue to be as effective as they have been against the virus and its variants, we’re hopeful that we’ll have relatively full arenas next season as well.”

The Washington Wizards and the Miami Heat compete in a mostly empty arena during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in Washington. The Heat won 128-124.
Nick Wass, Associated Press

That doesn’t mean that everything is going to be easy. The 2020-21 season is going to wrap up later in the summer than it usually does and everything is still being dictated by the coronavirus.

“I think we’re going to end up as some combination of maybe an abbreviated summer league, minicamps and other opportunities,” Silver said of the offseason plans. “I think everything is on the table now.”

For the Jazz, there are a lot of things from the last 365 days that are in the past and will stay there. There are other things that continue to motivate them and have led to their success during this strange and unique season.

“Quite frankly a lot of it was blown out of proportion,” Mitchell said. “Rudy and I were unsalvageable or whether we were for real. And obviously we lost in the first round, blew a 3-1 lead, but it really fueled us to kind of come into this season with this type of chip on our shoulder. I think that’s what you’re seeing — a bunch of guys who just feel like we’re going to go out there and do it.”

There’s been so much that has happened since March 11, 2020. It feels like it was both just yesterday and that we’ve all somehow lived multiple lifetimes since then.

There’s no good way to wrap things up because in a lot of ways we’re still living through and being impacted by the same things today. Maybe someday we’ll be able to look back on it all with some clarity and be able to put into context everything that we’ve learned and all the ways that we’ve grown.

For now, like the Jazz, we just have to keep going. Keep trying to do better and hope that better days are on the horizon.