And so it begins.
This month, the NBA’s grand experiment at salvaging its erstwhile season gets underway in earnest, with 22 of the league’s 30 teams trekking to the virus-stricken state of Florida to reboot the 2019-20 season at Disney’s locked-down ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, colloquially referred to as the Bubble.
But a deadly pandemic might not be the greatest concern facing Season 2.0. Judging by recent interviews with restart participants, that distinction may lie with the legitimacy of the endeavor itself.
The issue is likely the result of some philosophizing from The Big Aristotle himself, Shaquille O’Neal. Back in May, O’Neal had this to say about an NBA restart: “To try and come back now and do a rush playoffs as a player? Any team that wins this year, there’s an asterisk. They’re not going to get the respect.”
He doubled down on a late-June podcast. “It’s an asterisk, baby,” O’Neal said. “It will count for some people, but I’m not changing my opinion.”
It’s likely O’Neal meant an unofficial asterisk, not a literal black mark next to the eventual champion, but that hasn’t stopped players, coaches, and executives from pushing back vociferously against the notion, providing bored beat reporters with copious quotes about how this will be “the toughest championship you could ever win” (Giannis Antetokounmpo) or how it will warrant a “harder-than-ordinary asterisk” (Frank Vogel) or that the winning team “deserves a gold star, not an asterisk” (Doc Rivers). Some, like Houston Rockets’ owner Tilman Fertitta, simply declared there would be no asterisk: “Whoever wins this championship there is no asterisk. …Why would there be an asterisk?”
What would you expect them to say? No one headed to Orlando wants the eventual champion cheapened, most certainly not those players and teams likely to be left standing in the NBA Finals.
And while hyperbolic talk of the sacrifices this bubble experiment will demand of participants behooves no one — I’m looking at you, Doc “Use the Navy SEALs as an example” Rivers — the asterisk opponents do have a point. After a four-month layoff, teams are being asked to essentially go from training camp to playoff intensity in 45 days, give or take. No one knows what that will mean for injuries or team chemistry. Plus, they’re being asked to do all this separated from their loved ones and the creature comforts of home, although resort accommodations make it difficult to grouse.
But while every team at the Bubble will be competing under the same circumstances, that in itself is a departure from the norm. The neutral-site venue, while necessary, trashes the traditional home-court advantage higher seeds earn through their hard work during the grueling regular season, granting lower seeds an implicit advantage by leveling the playing field. Once you start deviating from the norm in ways that eschew tradition, you create fertile ground for asterisk talk.
Still, the current pro-asterisk argument isn’t a strong one, on par with the line of argument surrounding lockout champs. The striking aspect of the anti-asterisk crowd, though, is their insistence, their declarative certainty. There will be no asterisk. To borrow from Shakespeare: They doth protest too much, methinks. And why doth they protest? Because they’re terrified an asterisk will be affixed anyway.
Let’s try a thought experiment. If, say, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks meet in the Finals and both teams are healthy, maybe asterisk talk remains fringe at worst, limited to those fans bitter their team came up short. But imagine if Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James tests positive for Covid-19 and has to miss the Finals. Do you seriously believe anyone besides the staunchest of homers would argue the chip was legit? Imagine the entire starting five of the Los Angeles Clippers being waylaid by the virus, allowing the Lakers to cruise into the Finals. Was their path artificially easy? There’s only one correct answer, and all the asterisk naysayers know it.
With Covid-19 cases spiking around the country and the Florida air as soupy with coronavirus as it is humidity, Commissioner Adam Silver has already said a significant outbreak within the Bubble would lead to a second shutdown, which is a scenario no one wants to see transpire. But a blow to competitiveness in the form of a pernicious if not widespread outbreak is a very real — and very legitimate — fear that all those involved should harbor, even if they won’t come out and admit it. The Bubble experiment offers no guarantees, as many involved have repeatedly pointed out. That includes no guarantee of legitimacy.
So is all this an exercise in futility? Not at all. But those launching preemptive strikes against a hypothetical asterisk would be better served focusing their energies where they can do the most good: enforcing the agreed-upon Bubble rules. As things stand, the complex is more Wiffle ball than true bubble, but barring the implementation of the unreasonable precautions I advocated — and really, where would the league even find motion-activated laser turrets anyway? — the NBA and Players Union should be commended for the serious-minded attempt. This is no gimcrack effort.
But as the tired cliché goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and three months is a long time to expect a bunch of young millionaires to hang out in their hotel rooms in Florida playing Booray or Canasta or Go Fish. Want proof? The team Amar’e Stoudemire plays for in Israel was fined because Stoudemire broke league quarantine rules twice to go to a Tel Aviv mall.
To a mall!
Heck, even Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns couldn’t resist taking a break from Arizona stay-at-home orders in April to tool around on a road trip with Kendall Jenner in his Maybach. (There isn’t a single part of that sentence I enjoyed typing.)
“My confidence ain’t great,” Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard said when asked about players following the rules in Orlando. “My confidence ain’t great because you’re telling me you’re gonna have 22 teams full of players following all the rules? When we have 100 percent freedom, everybody don’t follow all the rules.”
But if the players, coaches, and executives genuinely want to avoid having their efforts stamped with an asterisk, they’re going to have to do more than speak it into existence. It’s going to take personal sacrifice. Willpower. Selflessness. They’re going to need to police their own, so no one’s comportment matches the truculence of a maskless Karen at a Costco. Perhaps an outbreak will prove inevitable despite everyone’s best efforts. But everyone participating in the Bubble has a vested interest to do their level best not to undermine those efforts.
Because in the end, those speaking to reporters won’t be the final determinants of whether the champion gets appended with that dreaded asterisk. Circumstances will.