In the lead-up to their season opener on Wednesday night at Vivint Arena, several members of the Utah Jazz were asked — with an 82-game season in place, and games beginning again in October, and fans once again in every arena — if things were finally starting to feel normal again.
“I’d love to hear what the definition of ‘normal’ is,” Joe Ingles quipped after the morning’s shootaround.
It’s a fair point.
With the COVID-19 Delta variant surging throughout the country, it’s not as though everything is suddenly and completely back to the way it was before Rudy Gobert’s positive test all the way back on March 11, 2020, shook the world.
For one thing, to enter Vivint Arena to see the Jazz take on the Oklahoma City Thunder — coincidence alert! — fans had to either show proof of vaccination or of a negative COVID-19 test from the preceding 72 hours.
Prior to going through security and getting their tickets scanned, the masses had to go through an extra layer of arena personnel and show either a card, a printout, or a picture.
No one seemed to mind the couple extra seconds too much.
“In an area where so many of us aren’t going to be wearing masks, I think it’s the right thing to have your vaccination if you want to come out to a public space with [18,500] people,” said Brandon Beglin, who came in from Oklahoma City to visit family in Mapleton. “It’s the cost of admission at this point to go out and do things.
“We have the right to do what we want with vaccines,” he added, “but if we want to come into someone else’s business and onto their property, we have to follow their rules.”
The Jazz themselves, meanwhile, have maybe a few fewer rules to follow now that the entire team is vaccinated.
Mike Conley, for example, was grateful that the testing process has been streamlined a bit.
“The biggest thing so far is the amount of testing, the difference from last year and this year — we haven’t had to test as much,” he said. “All of our guys have been vaccinated, so that does help a little bit — not having to sit in your car for an hour every morning, waiting for your test results in order to come back into the facility every day. That was a little bit off our normal schedule. So we’re kind of getting back on our normal routines, and things have been going pretty smooth.”
Ingles, meanwhile, faux-complained that not much was actually that different, as Barnett Frank — the team’s Director of Performance Science — would still be “be annoying us with testing times and stuff whenever we have to do that, whatever that looks like.”
The intriguing consensus between Ingles and Conley, though, is that the bubble restart of that 19-20 season, the ensuing 20-21 campaign, and this brand-new set of games all somehow feel like part of the same interconnected thing.
“It feels like we’ve played three [seasons] in a year,” Ingles said.
Given that, several team members acknowledged that there was almost a sense of normalcy now to the lack of … well, normalcy.
“We just adapt as the world does,” said Gobert. “Whatever happens in the world, we keep adapting.”
“I don’t know that anyone really remembers [what it was like before] — everything from where people are sitting to what the various protocols are,” said coach Quin Snyder. “I think the normal part of it is being ready to adapt to change. If you approach it from that standpoint, I think you’re prepared for wherever the season goes.”
Ingles, ever the contrarian, naturally focused in on one big difference between last season and this, and, counterintuitively, suggested there was something from the more restrictive season he’d actually like to bring back.
“Having to squish up on the bench again — [that’s] probably the worst thing!” Ingles said with a laugh. “I wish they’d leave some extra room on the bench [with the individual, spaced seats].”
More seriously, he reiterated that even with all the incremental changes to facilitate the appearance of normalcy — full-sized crowds, no mask mandates, reduced testing, et cetera — the reality remains that a pandemic is ongoing.
“Obviously as this year goes on and things with COVID are still kind of doing what they’re doing, there’s going to be things that happen that we have to deal with throughout this year, regardless. It’s just inevitable, whether it be someone on our team or family members or kids — something’s going to happen at some point,” he said. “… We’ll be pretty fluid with it and see how it goes and take it in stride. And I think we’ve got a pretty good group that does everything they can to stay as safe as possible. But I mean, I think it’s inevitable that something at some point will happen.”