Microphone hijinks, backstage rumors and all hell breaking loose: The Utah Jazz’s surreal night in Oklahoma City

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) l-r Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45), Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson (00), Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) try to get some momentum in the second half. The Utah Jazz lost to the Houston Rockets 110-120 at Vivint Arena, Feb. 22, 2020.

It’s been called “the craziest day in NBA history” — and “it’s not even close” by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons. Certainly, not since Magic Johnson’s announcement that he carried HIV has a positive test sent such shockwaves through the NBA, and the epicenter was Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Tribune reporter Andy Larsen was in Oklahoma City as the Jazz prepared to play. This is his account of the event and the days surrounding it:

I wanted to talk to Rudy Gobert.

Before Monday’s game against the Toronto Raptors, the Jazz’s All-Star center had just played two games against two different defensive schemes, which I wanted to know about. So when team public relations employees asked who we wanted to talk to, I requested Gobert.

They explained that media sessions would be done a little differently. Typically, reporters form a semi-circle around players in close proximity, but the Jazz wanted us to sit at tables six to eight feet away from Gobert. About four hours later the NBA announced that every team would follow the same interview format, the Jazz were early adopters. The idea was to keep the media away from the players, who would presumably stay disease-free in this manner.

As you now know, Gobert tested positive for coronavirus on Wednesday night. When he infamously touched everyone’s microphone on the table on Monday, he may have thought he was being congenially mischievous. In actuality, it was more likely that Gobert was endangering others. On Thursday, Gobert apologized for his actions, acknowledging his carelessness in his behavior.

Utah state epidemiologists consider the kind of touching Gobert did “low-risk,” however — if a reporter’s only interaction with Gobert was that he touched a microphone, he or she is not being asked to stay home.

The Jazz lost to the Raptors that night. Afterwords, we again requested Gobert, and because only “essential team personnel” were allowed in the locker room, we spoke to him at a press conference room for a few minutes, again from a distance of about 6-8 feet away. We also spoke to Donovan Mitchell in the same fashion.

A normal game day — until it wasn’t

Fast forward to Wednesday in Oklahoma City. That morning, the team held shootaround at Chesapeake Energy Arena at about 10 a.m. MT. Typically, road shootarounds are some of the most fruitful times to get information as a reporter, because we can walk up to players and just chat, on or off the record, about anything at all. Given the precautions, I knew I had to keep a distance of six to eight feet, so I didn’t expect this shootaround to be revealing. Still, I came on the off chance there was news.

There was. I was informed that neither Rudy Gobert and Emmanuel Mudiay were at the gym that morning because they were sick, and that both were listed as questionable for the game. I tweeted the information.

Then, I went to chat with the traveling media employed by the team, who fly on the team’s charter. While I had dinner with many from the group the night before, I was asked by a staff member to go to a different part of the arena to watch the remaining shootaround to avoid them. But just a half hour later, at the 21c Museum Hotel in Oklahoma City, media who had traveled on the team plane sat shoulder to shoulder as we interviewed Mitchell and Quin Snyder from about six feet away. The inconsistency of the policy — should everyone stay six feet away from everyone else, or just the players? — was an early sign that the status quo couldn’t hold.

Still, the mood was lighthearted. Sideline reporter Kristen Kenney joked that she had a stereotypically Utah solution to the interview problem: she planned on interviewing players by duct-taping a microphone to a ski pole.

Basketball fans react after it is announced that an NBA basketball game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City has been postponed, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)

A misunderstanding — or something else

Typically, it’s a good idea to arrive two hours before tip-off: media get to interview the home team’s coach 105 minutes before the game, and the road team coach 90 minutes before the game. At the latter press gaggle, I asked Jazz coach Quin Snyder about Gobert’s status.

“No, neither Rudy nor Emmanuel are playing,” he said. My job: tweet that news.

But minutes later I received a call from the team that Snyder had “misunderstood” my question, and that Gobert’s status remained questionable. Snyder’s response was crystal clear, though — he wasn’t playing. There was either confusion or something else afoot.

Gobert was announced as sitting out a second time about five minutes before tip-off. He never even arrived at the arena, but the team was apparently hoping that the test would come back negative because “Gobert was feeling strong enough to play tonight,” as The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported. Eventually, it was clear that the test result wouldn’t come in time for him to play.

The anthem was performed, and players from both the Jazz and the Thunder got ready. But just then at 7:10 p.m. CT, Donnie Strack, Thunder vice president of player performance, came running onto the floor with news: Gobert had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

The referees converged, then called both head coaches into a huddle. They decided that both teams would leave the court and go to their respective locker rooms. OKC’s PA announcer said that they were awaiting confirmation from the league to begin the game. Given what had happened, of course that confirmation would never come.

The motion in the back halls of the arena was frantic. Executives in suits jogged back and forth to relay information, as medical personnel spoke to general managers who spoke to team ownership and so on. Anyone who wasn’t jogging somewhere to tell someone something seemed to be pacing, talking on a cellphone. Meanwhile, security stood guard outside the hallway, keeping anyone without an all-access pass out of the area closest to the locker rooms.

At 7:37 p.m. CT, the PA announcer told the fans the game was postponed, to boos and even a scream. “We are all safe, and you can visit OKCThunder.com for information on upcoming games,” he said. He instructed people to leave in an orderly fashion.

Basketball fans leave Chesapeake Energy Arena after it is announced that an NBA basketball game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City has been postponed, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)

I started to wander around the back halls in an effort to find out more information. Fifteen minutes later, I saw Quin Snyder walking around the halls, talking on his phone, accompanied by Jazz personnel. Heading back out to the floor, some arena staffers were wiping down the first few rows of seats, starting with the Jazz’s bench. At 8:27 p.m. CT, The Athletic reported Gobert’s positive test. Just four minutes later, ESPN reported that the NBA was suspending the season.

In my shoes, that was a pretty colossal one-two punch of information. Obviously, the Gobert diagnosis had been speculated, but knowing it was confirmed began the cavalcade of concern: “Do I have the virus? How does it spread? When will I get home? Who do I know who might be at risk? And even if I’m healthy, what is the fate of my life if the NBA is suspended for a significant amount of time?”

I begin calling my family, my closest friends. I called my boss, and we figured out what needs to be added to The Tribune’s story. CNN also calls. For hours, I either paced around the Thunder’s court or sat on the NBA logo in front of the scorer’s table.

At about 10 p.m. CT, the Thunder were allowed to leave the arena and go home to their families, as Oklahoma State Department of Health personnel were satisfied that their second-degree connection to Gobert didn’t put them at significant risk. Meanwhile, the Jazz stayed hunkered in their locker room with masks on their faces.

An hour later, the team informed us that we would also receive tests for the coronavirus along with the players. After the nurses finished testing the players, they tested us. From the patient point of view, the test was quick: using samples from the back of our throat and our sinuses at the top of our nose — placing a stick in the sinuses felt like the doctors were tickling my brain.

Then, we spoke to Oklahoma epidemiologists. They told us that they were taking the 58 tests to the lab and running them that night, and that they should have results in the morning. At about 9:50 a.m CT, ESPN reported Donovan Mitchell’s positive test result. Fifteen or so minutes later, I got the word that I had tested negative, and my stress level drops significantly.

A negative test, but an uncertain future

Thanks to work from Utah state leaders, the Utah Health Department, and the Jazz, the negatively-tested group was able to travel home Thursday afternoon on a charter jet. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert were not on that plane.

Now that I’ve arrived home, I’ll be under a voluntary quarantine for 14 days. I’ll have friends and family deliver me some extra groceries, and I’ll be on the lookout for any symptoms. But the outlook for me personally at this point is about as good as can be.

Meanwhile, as The Athletic reported, Jazz players must remain in Utah for the foreseeable future while the league is suspended, just as the league’s 29 other teams’ players will remain in their markets. Players will “remain home as long as possible.” There won’t be any group workouts or practices allowed, and team physicians will talk to players daily.

Adam Silver announced on TNT Thursday night that the NBA season would be suspended at least 30 days, but could even be cancelled — there’s just not enough information right now to make a decision.

For now, indefinite NBA purgatory looms after one remarkable night in Oklahoma City.