From last March until this one has been the most dramatic and discussed year in Utah Jazz history.
That’s even taking into account the two prior iterations of the team that earned trips to the NBA Finals — an accomplishment not matched in this particular slice of time.
But in no other year have the Jazz been the focus of international news. On no previous occasion were they the singular cause of the league suspending the season. Nor have there been other years where drama between two Jazz teammates carried so much of the league’s conversation for weeks.
And then when basketball was played again?
Well, the Jazz only participated in their most dramatic seven-game series ever, losing on a buzzer-beating shot that rimmed out. They then followed that up with an early-season revenge tour, setting the NBA on fire and trouncing nearly all comers in leading the standings by the All-Star break.
They’ve experienced the highs and lows of a roller coaster — but for 12 months, not two minutes. The Tribune takes a look back in the Jazz’s year that we’ll never forget.
The week that changed everything
Our story begins on the morning of March 9, 2020.
The Jazz were returning home after a four-game road trip to play the Toronto Raptors that night, but had to deal with a haphazard set of new protocols implemented by the NBA due to the spread of a newfangled coronavirus. In particular, while players were still allowed to go enjoy a night on the town on their off nights, new restrictions prevented media from interviewing players face to face, to protect the players from any viral particles interviewers might spew.
So Rudy Gobert’s standard morning shootaround availability — typically held with Gobert standing along a backdrop, reporters surrounding him — was turned into a socially distanced press conference, with microphones placed on a table. At the conclusion of the presser, Gobert did something he’ll never live down: He started to playfully touch the microphones.
In a way, it was a show of support, a way for Gobert to joke about the restrictions and say “I’m not afraid of media germs.” But irony has a funny way of working out, and Gobert would be vilified for the move in a matter of days.
Gobert started feeling sick a day later on March 10, as the Jazz were traveling to Oklahoma City for an important game that would play a large role in determining the Jazz’s playoff seeding. While Gobert was coughing, he considered his initial symptoms to be light enough to still be able to play in what was an important game. According to The Athletic, teammates encouraged him to be tested for coronavirus that night, but Gobert didn’t think his symptoms were that serious, and eventually got tested on Wednesday morning.
The Frenchman wasn’t alone. Teammate Emmanuel Mudiay was also sick and was also tested, and the pair skipped shootaround on Wednesday morning, officially due to illness. Still, both were planning on being available to play, because their symptoms were minor enough that both wanted to contribute to their team in the critical game.
As the minutes counted down until the game, the Jazz hemmed and hawed about Gobert and Mudiay’s availability for the game. At 6:40 p.m, the Jazz gave up — the results of the tests didn’t come back quickly enough, and the team announced neither would be available. About 10-20 minutes later, the tests came back, showing Gobert tested positive and Mudiay negative.
When Thunder trainer Donnie Strack ran out on the court, he delivered the news to the three referees in charge of the game, who then pulled the coaches together. They sent both teams back to their locker rooms, where they’d stay for the next four and a half hours.
There, players remember the fear and confusion that resulted, but also two acts that significantly relieved the tension.
First, Jazz coach Quin Snyder put his communication skills to work for the evening, working to talk to players while also trying to find a place for his players to sleep that night — the team’s previous hotel, the 21c Museum Hotel, wouldn’t allow them to return another night.
“I think that a lot of people had been trying to figure out how long we were going to be in that room, whether we needed to bring cots and sleep, or we were trying to find a hotel room, which was really difficult,” Snyder said. “And as you got further and further into it, you realized transportation was really going to be an issue.” Still, Snyder worked with Jazz staffers to figure it out, and keep everyone involved with what was going on with fanatical communication.
Second, Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul sent what Snyder called “refreshments” — cases of beer and wine for the Jazz’s locker room.
“We’ll always look back on him fondly for that. I don’t know if he would have given us the same refreshments if we played the game,” Snyder laughed.
At 7:37 p.m., after a remarkable decision to have the game’s halftime act perform to keep fans entertained in the interim, Oklahoma City fans were sent home. At about 8 p.m., arena staffers started to disinfect the Jazz’s bench area.
At 8:27 p.m., NBA reporter Shams Charania tweeted the news, the first public acknowledgment of what had happened: Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus.
Four minutes later, Commissioner Adam Silver announced the decision to suspend the NBA season.
By about 10:30 p.m. local time, the NBA and Oklahoma state health officials had come up with the plan to test the Jazz’s players, coaches, and staff, along with the three media members who had traveled to the game. The state health department showed up in full protective gear, and gave each person two swabs: a back of throat swab, and the nasopharyngeal swab that made everyone uncomfortable.
“It felt like it went up into your brain and it was hard to keep from having a physical reaction,” Snyder recalled.
Players finished being tested at about 11:40 p.m., while staffers and media finished at about 12:50 a.m. The Jazz had finally found a hotel that would take them, a small chain hotel near the Oklahoma City Airport that certainly wouldn’t have qualified as an NBA-caliber five-star hotel under normal circumstances.
By about 10 a.m. the next morning, the team got their test results back — Donovan Mitchell was the only other positive test. While they worked out a plan to get Mitchell back home, the rest of the team, staffers, and media went on buses to the Jazz’s charter flight back in Salt Lake City. After landing, the assembled group would meet with state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn in an airport hangar.
There, Dunn instructed everyone who had close contact with Gobert to begin a 14-day quarantine. Those two weeks were an uncertain beginning to what turned out to be a dramatic hiatus.
A relationship frayed, then repaired
First came the reverberating shockwaves.
That viral clip of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban seeing the breaking news on his cellphone and his mouth hanging open remains an image seared into our consciousness.
Elsewhere, as the news spread, most NBA players reacted with shock and surprise, while a few suddenly had grim confirmation of their worst suspicions.
“I was on the phone [beforehand] with my significant other and I was like, ‘This is serious. We’ve got to be extremely careful.’ And we’d just had the baby at the time and I was like, ‘OK, I should just go and get a bunch of groceries and just stay home until we see how this plays out,’” Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo remembered. “And a couple days later, the whole NBA shut down. And I remember telling her, I was like, ‘I told you, and you wasn’t listening to me! I told you this is serious!’”
Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, known throughout league circles as much for his intellectual curiosity as his burgeoning hoop skills, was as up to speed on the coronavirus pandemic as any athlete reasonably could be back then, yet still found himself taken aback when the inevitable occurred.
“I had been keeping up with it prior to when it hit the NBA, so I was already preparing and trying to prepare my family for what was to come. And it was a blessing that I was able to do so. But as soon as it hit the NBA, things became crazy — media headlines, [et cetera],” Brown said. “It’s almost like I don’t know what to even say; I don’t think you can really prepare for something like that, or that anybody could, [that] anybody was ready for what was about to happen.”
Silver, trying to simultaneously convey gravity and hopefulness, retrospectively proved an example of our collective societal naïveté when he initially declared that the NBA’s hiatus would last “most likely at least 30 days.”
“When we seen the events that happened in OKC, you didn’t know, really, what to think. It’s the first time it’s ever happened in any one of our major sports leagues,” said Lakers star LeBron James. “… We were hoping that it would only be a couple of weeks, or shut down for a little bit ‘til we get a handle over this thing. And obviously that was being way too optimistic.”
There was not much optimism, at the time, emanating from Utah.
Reports swirled that various Jazz players were furious with Gobert for a lack of seriousness about the health guidelines issued by the team, and he released a public statement apologizing for having been “careless.” Meanwhile, social media put him on blast, excoriating him for shutting down the NBA (which in turn caused other sports leagues to go on hiatus), oblivious to the reality that even had Gobert not tested positive that night, someone else would have days later.
Then came that infamous article in The Athletic. Buried near the bottom of a lengthy piece seeking to spell out the details of a team suddenly turned upside down was a quote from an anonymous source claiming that the relationship between Gobert and Mitchell was now “unsalvageable.”
Mitchell made an appearance on “Good Morning America” and offered a tepid response when host Robin Roberts inquired whether he’d had any contact with his teammate: “It took awhile for me to kind of cool off,” Mitchell said. “I read what he said and I heard what he said. I’m glad he’s doing OK, I’m glad I’m doing well.”
The Jazz had been thrown into the fire. The question was, would absorbing the seemingly relentless blows break them apart? Or forge them into something stronger?
The one thing the Jazz did have working in their favor was the luxury of time.
Even as the rumor mill churned and breathless speculation ensued about the apparent incompatibility of the team’s two stars, the lack of an imminent return to action allowed that initial animosity to dissipate.
“Those few weeks, those few months were really tough,” said Gobert. “… When you go through tough times, it makes you grow. And it was exactly that for me.”
Soon enough, there was work being done behind the scenes, as Gobert and Mitchell agreed to a phone call to try and hash things out and get back on the same page.
“You sit in quarantine and you sit in your room for as many days as we did, I think it was a lot of time to reflect on a lot of different things. I was able to kind of take a step back,” said Mitchell. “… And quite frankly, a lot of it was blown out of proportion, to be honest with you. Most of these things are.”
By the time the team arrived in the Disney World campus bubble about four months after Gobert’s positive test and the league shutdown, the allegedly “unsalvageable” relationship had apparently been salvaged.
Further, being in the bubble, where they were closed off from the outside world and “around each other 24/7,″ as Mitchell put it, necessitated closing the ranks, coming together, and leaving the old baggage behind.
“Going to Orlando and having an opportunity to be together to play basketball, but also to have that opportunity to connect and to share,” said Snyder, “particularly around all the social and racial justice issues, that certainly is a pivot point for our group.
“And one that continues.”
A year in review
The Jazz’s time in Orlando ended with on-court heartbreak, as the short-handed team rolled to a 3-1 playoff series lead over the rival Denver Nuggets, only to lose the final three games, including a crushing Game 7 defeat by two points when Mike Conley’s 3 at the final buzzer rimmed out.
But if their hearts were broken, their spirits, at least, were apparently healed.
Mitchell and Gobert affirmed their commitment not only to the franchise, but to each other, by agreeing to long-term contract extensions.
“I’m less dramatic about Rudy and Donovan after last year,” said Snyder. “I think those things happen with best friends, with teams, with teammates. I think the unique thing last year is the overlay of the whole COVID experience and the fact that Rudy tested positive and then Donovan was the only other player at that point that had tested positive. So it really called attention to that situation.”
There were good vibes coming out of Utah’s training camp this past December, but it’s probably a stretch to believe that even they foresaw a streak of 20 wins in 21 games, top-five ratings in both offense and defense, and the best record in the league by the All-Star break.
Not bad at all for a team allegedly on the verge of implosion just months before.
Speaking of the break, there was a certain déjà vu to it all when, last Sunday morning, it was announced that 76ers tent-poles Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons would be held out of that night’s All-Star Game, banished to the shadow-realm purgatory of “health and safety protocol”-based ineligibility because the barber they both visited had just tested positive for COVID-19.
For most of this season, practices and shootarounds have been greatly curtailed, owing to the hassle and time-suck of having to administer and pass tests beforehand, to say nothing of restrictions on gathering together in confined spaces. Most arenas have been empty for the majority of the year, with many teams only recently beginning to allow a limited number of fans. A few handfuls of games have been postponed when “contact tracing” depleted rosters beyond the point of eight-player minimums.
This has become the new normal.
“Obviously, a lot has happened in one year. For all of us, it’s been an adapting period. A lot of things happened that took everybody out of their comfort zone,” said Gobert. “It’s true that if you were told me that we’re going to have to wear masks and all that, and not be able to be able to travel from one country to another, and have no fans and all that, it’s weird to understand.”
As the one-year anniversary of all the craziness has approached, players and coaches have grown reflective, even if only as a result of being asked to by those covering them.
It’s a clear delineation, a natural benchmark from which to examine what was and to compare it now to what is and what might be.
They all understand and play along.
“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,” said Conley. “And now that we are a year removed almost and we saw the ups and downs of what the pandemic has brought on for so many people, for myself, it 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 kind of self-reflect during this time. It’s been a trying time, but one in which we’ve learned a lot about ourselves.”
That learning process is something every one of them touch upon.
“It’s crazy that it’s been a whole year. We’ve done so much in this time, so much has happened, not just in the NBA, in sports, but within the world. I think we learned a lot about different things, learned a lot about people,” said Mitchell. “… As far as the sports world goes, I’m happy we’re back. I’m blessed to continue to play, to put on a show. But it’s been a wild ride, and obviously we’re still in the midst of it.”
Gobert knows that some will forever associate him with the notoriety of being professional sports’ so-called “Patient Zero,” but there is no ignominy in the label as far as he’s concerned. He just happened to be the unfortunate one.
And while he certainly could have done without the public scorn and the death threats, he nevertheless has emerged from this yearlong stretch with both additional resolve and perspective.
“Everything you go through in life, it either makes you or breaks you,” said Gobert. “… There’s a lot of things that I think we all took for granted. In all of our lives, every single one, we all have things that we realize that … s---, we’ve got to enjoy every little moment, every little thing.”
Snyder, in reflecting upon these past 12 months, called Gobert’s positive test and all the ensuing affiliated drama “a touchstone.” There’s no doubt it had an impact on the Jazz, even if they maintain it was never quite as dire as we were led to believe.
Still, it’s interesting to note that while Mitchell remains prone to uttering disbelief at how much has happened in such a short time, his coach — now able to juxtapose those events against a team that has emerged as one of the best in the NBA — can look back at March 11, 2020, and almost view it as ancient history.
“The story, the narrative was so compelling, particularly given COVID, and then no one’s playing. So a lot of attention was given to us — really as a microcosm — and those guys in particular,” Snyder said. “So you watch everybody play right now, you watch those two guys play, and, you know, that’s a long time ago — literally and figuratively.”