- Baxter Holmes (@Baxter) is a senior writer for ESPN Digital and Print, focusing on the NBA. He has covered the Lakers, the Celtics and previously worked for The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times.
As the NBA seeks solutions to return to action during the coronavirus pandemic, teams are weighing scenarios for potential games with only essential personnel present.
Perhaps a key factor in such decisions, beyond titles or responsibilities, is the health and age of those staffers, NBA general managers told ESPN.
One NBA general manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity, pointed to the age of the team’s head coach and others on the staff and said he would feel uneasy about those coaches being present for games, given the factors that place some people at a higher risk for serious issues because of the virus.
“I don’t want to put them in harm’s way,” the general manager said.
Another general manager echoed the point regarding team staffers who might be at a high risk because of underlying health conditions or their age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that adults over 65 are at a higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.
“Based on all the information that we have today, probably people over 60 with preexisting conditions can’t go, for sure, no matter what their titles are,” the second general manager said. “Whether it’s a father of the star player or whether it’s the general manager of the team, they can’t go there.”
The first general manager said these issues apply to staff beyond coaches.
“I worry about those guys,” the general manager said. “That’s an exposure that I don’t think we can afford.”
The first GM also said that what an individual is essential for must be defined, from player health to broadcasting to other elements of behind-the-scenes production.
But if “essential” is only focused on player health and wellness, then several general managers said they would want the bulk of their medical and athletic training staffs to be on site. Answering who else should be present isn’t as clear — and the possible answers could create discomfort among staffers who feel their job security is on the line, especially during a period of heavy financial losses when teams are cutting salary, furloughing employees or even laying them off.
“When you start defining essential personnel and you’re creating a list of essential and nonessential, you think the owner’s not going to ask for that list?” one veteran athletic training official said. “You think the owner’s not going to say, ‘Do we need three video interns? Do we need three front-office interns to go and get coffee?'”
As the first general manager said, “We’re going to have to get comfortable with the fact that there are going to be some people getting their feelings hurt that they’re not essential, and that’s OK.”
A common answer for determining essential staff comes back to the concept of the traveling party. Several general managers said their traveling party consisted of about 40 to 50 people, with more during the playoffs.
With careful calculations, that number could be cut in half, a third general manager said, though exactly how a team would do so remains unclear.
“The one area you don’t want to skimp on is the medical,” another general manager said. “The coaching part of it, you could probably get by with a head coach, that’s it.”
In the end, the question of who is or isn’t essential is complicated and nuanced.
“Why don’t you find the first person that doesn’t see themselves as essential,” one veteran athletic training official asked, half-kidding, “and let me know who all that would be.”
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