NBA Finals: Secret Covid Outbreak Shot Fear Through Bucks, Suns Orgs - Rolling Stone
×
Home Culture Culture Features

Revealed: The Secret Covid Outbreak That Shot Fear Through the NBA Finals

17 sources describe to Rolling Stone a coronavirus crisis pushing pro basketball to the brink: Upwards of a dozen people associated with the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns tested positive — and a superstar “dodged a bullet”

Basketball: NBA Finals: Milwaukee Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) victorious holding NBA Finals MVP Trophy after winning game and series vs Phoenix Suns at Fiserv Forum. Game 6.  Cover.Milwaukee, WI 7/20/2021 CREDIT: Greg Nelson (Photo by Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X163696 TK1)

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo holding the NBA Finals MVP Trophy after winning the finals against the Phoenix Suns.

Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Bucks clambered aboard the team plane, a Delta charter departing from Wisconsin, where coronavirus cases were about to triple over the course of the NBA Finals. Players and essential support staff squirmed down the aisle of the Boeing 727, bound for Arizona, where 900 new cases would be confirmed on game day.

It was July 4, 2021, and a franchise secret at the time, according to multiple officials familiar with the inner-workings of the Bucks, was that nobody outside of a small braintrust knew whether or not Giannis Antetokounmpo was vaccinated against Covid-19. The Delta variant was beginning to raise fresh hell. And the superstar’s vaccine secret — combined with what a high-ranking official who was just outside the braintrust called “hiccups” from Bucks management — stoked fear among employees across the franchise: That the highly contagious strain might come for them all … but especially for the most dominant athlete in the world. 

“And that’s when the outbreak happened,” the high-ranking official tells Rolling Stone

Antetokounmpo was recovering from a knee injury at miraculous speed, right on time for Game One of a best-of-seven series against the Phoenix Suns. He seemed, to fans and followers and the front office, more or less invincible … unless he wasn’t. The official recalls Milwaukee’s Delta blues: “We were very concerned that Giannis wasn’t vaccinated and that, with all of this exposure from all these different people,” the franchise cornerstone — a one-man band and the new face of the NBA — might get infected, or at least contact-traced by the NBA and forced to quarantine, potentially altering the course of sports history. “It hit everybody pretty quickly, but the biggest thing was: Just make sure Giannis tests negative.

Then there was the other plane. Members of the team’s expanded traveling party — wives and girlfriends, entourages and extended families — were added to a manifest for a second Bucks charter, cross-checked by NBA Covid testers and prepared for takeoff to the Finals. All season long, the Bucks had been almost fanatical in adhering to the league’s draconian virus protocols. The franchise had not permitted such passengers to join players on the road during the first three rounds of the playoffs, as they hunkered down with a long-standing mantra: Stay locked in.

The temptation of Milwaukee’s first NBA title in 50 years, however, opened the Delta floodgates.

“Of course we’re bringing our families,” three people remember head coach Mike Budenholzer telling the team. “It’s the Finals!”

The Bucks’ coaching staff and leadership of the franchise signed off on the plan to relax their own Covid restrictions, despite caution from the league office. There would be two games, two team planes, and two family dinners in Phoenix, including indoors at a clubby steakhouse.

When presented with the findings of a Rolling Stone investigation, the NBA’s Covid czar David Weiss and Alex Lasry, who was the Bucks’ senior vice president until he announced a U.S. Senate campaign earlier this year, acknowledged the previously unreported scale of a championship cluster. “This is the NBA Finals,” Lasry told Rolling Stone in an interview last week, on his way back from Joe Biden’s White House celebration of the Bucks’ eventual championship. “The last thing we need is for any of our guys — from the coach to the trainers to any of the players — is to be out. And even when you’re trying to be as responsible as possible, this virus is still going to make its way through.”

Indeed, the untold story of the 2021 NBA Finals, according to 17 sources speaking to Rolling Stone about the internal crisis for the first time, is that of a near-superspreader event chasing down the biggest superstar in the game on its biggest stage. Despite outward appearances that the Bucks were “all good” and that the Suns had sealed off a Delta breakthrough case that forced its vaccinated superstar Chris Paul to miss two games during the Western Conference Finals in June, the fear in Phoenix hit both teams.

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) is separated from Milwaukee Bucks center Bobby Portis (9) by Khris Middleton, center, during the second half of Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals in Milwaukee, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul is separated from Milwaukee Bucks center Bobby Portis by Khris Middleton (center) during the second half of Game Six of the NBA Finals in Milwaukee, July 20, 2021.

Paul Sancya/AP

Upwards of a dozen people associated with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns tested positive for Covid-19 during the Finals, according to league sources and four team officials with knowledge of the situation: six vaccinated staffers, including coaching and medical staffers from the Bucks; family members and people in both franchise entourages; and one player, Giannis’ brother and teammate Thanasis Antetokounmpo. Officials from each camp described to Rolling Stone a sandstorm of panic, a mounting frustration with uncooperative player families, and “an alarming number” of Covid cases and false positives among the traveling parties of the Bucks and the Suns, all ratcheting up — with the NBA cracking down — as the championship series crossed the Rockies and back.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he is now vaccinated. The Bucks declined to comment or make players, coaches, or performance staffers available for this story, then referred a detailed list of questions to the NBA. The league, while providing a rare window into what it called “a broad surveillance program,” said players did not end up transmitting the virus to one another during the Finals, but said it could not provide details after the NBA’s Covid czar admitted to an entourage effect that its army of testers and contact-tracers had made extra efforts to contain. The Bucks refused to confirm a possibly frightening irony: Two officials say that a Milwaukee official responsible for keeping the team Covid-free tested positive during the Finals himself.

“Hearing that the Suns also had issues, too, was a little bit scary,” says a second NBA official who was traveling with the Bucks. “It felt like Covid just dropped back out of the sky, came out of nowhere, and just tried its best to ruin the Finals.”

League sources say that people associated with the Suns produced positive Covid tests during the Finals. A former team doctor says the Suns “dropped our defenses.” And a person familiar with the Suns’ situation says members of their traveling party “were wondering if they would be on lockdown in their rooms again.”

“The virus is obviously an invisible opponent,” says Brady Howe, who oversees Covid protocols as the Suns’ vice president of health and performance. He claims the team was able to contain its own Finals flare-up from spreading to players and essential staff. “As the games progressed, we saw that some scenarios may have been brewing — just rumors between the two teams that, you know, there might be some people affected,” Howe tells Rolling Stone. “It felt like teams were still playing it day-by-day, trying to skate by at the skin of our teeth.”

Fans were trained to feel like everything was going according to plan: With maskless crowds metastasizing, league commissioner Adam Silver repeatedly billed the 2021 NBA playoffs “as a symbol that perhaps the worst of the pandemic is behind us.” Fawning sports reporters stenographed the Bucks’ behind-the-scenes approach to the Finals as “quite calm,” with “an overall typical feel and look of a championship sporting event.” The league’s broadcast partners at ESPN rarely mentioned the virus during ABC game coverage, worth an estimated $250 million in ad revenue, preferring cutaways to Fiserv Forum, where 65,000 Bucks fans packed together outside; the Wisconsin Department of Health Services tells Rolling Stone that it has recently linked 659 confirmed cases and 133 probable cases of Covid-19 to the so-called Deer District’s basketball mosh pit.

The NBA helped to kickstart a worldwide quarantine in March 2020 with one positive test, only to help reopen it with a virus-proof bubble in Disney World four months later, implementing rigorous protocols for the 2020-21 season. But now it appears that the science-first league, while contributing last season’s testing data to pioneering research, raced to the finish line while leaving a cluster of Covid cases out of public view.

Weiss, the NBA executive in charge of the league’s coronavirus response, tells Rolling Stone: “Because of a high vaccination rate, the enhancements to our protocols — including increasing testing frequency, reinstituting face masks at team facilities for all players, and limiting the number of staff who could interact with players — and the diligence from the Bucks’ and Suns’ players and staff, we were able to prevent any coronavirus transmission among players and safely complete the Finals.”

The NBA tested its players and essential staff 2,366 times during last year’s championship series, and the league tells RS that 97 percent of players are now vaccinated with at least one jab; its rules for the current season make life extremely uncomfortable not to be. Booster shots are being boosted across the NBA.

The virus, though, is still winning: Over two weeks in November, an analysis of league data and media reports by Rolling Stone found, more NBA players have tested positive or come in close contact with those who did than during any stretch since a pre-vaccine wave postponed 31 games. The Bucks’ All-Star forward Khris Middleton, returning in primetime on Wednesday night from a bout with Covid, was one of at least 42 NBA players to have been forced into quarantine since vaccinations became widely available in April. He’s one of at least 10 All-Stars to have quarantined since the end of the Finals and one of 10 players — all said to be vaccinated — placed in quarantine this month alone.

Examining America’s most persistently visible breakthrough cases and a crisis of superstar vaccine denial exposed before this season by Rolling Stone, the league’s own expert epidemiologists warn that Milwaukee’s hush-hush rush to the title reflects a complacent entertainment industry — and our whiplashed world — as the NBA continues to cross over between paragon of science and emergency responder.

The New England Journal of Medicine is preparing to publish a major paper based on what one of its authors hails as “progressive and proactive” NBA testing from the 2020-21 season. According to a confidential draft version obtained by Rolling Stone, leading virologists have determined that breakthrough infections in vaccinated players do not threaten their entourages for nearly as long a period as do the unvaxxed, thus helping to avoid “the likelihood of ‘superspreading’ events.”

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - JULY 17: Head coach Monty Williams of the Phoenix Suns huddles his team during a time out against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half in Game Five of the NBA Finals at Footprint Center on July 17, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Suns head coach Monty Williams huddles his team during a time out against the Milwaukee Bucks during the second half in Game Five of the NBA Finals at Phoenix’s Footprint Center on July 17, 2021.

Christian Peterson/Getty Images

Stephen Kissler, a researcher at Harvard’s Public School of Health, another co-author of the study, says the reality that the championship series itself was almost that type of an event can provide a case study straight out of “a textbook with an asterisk — with everything, with sports, with business.”

“It’s yet another reality check — and a very high-profile example, which is very valuable,” Kissler tells RS. “Because it shows that, yes, we really can get back to life as it was before the pandemic, but there’s always that asterisk behind it. There’s that little star that’s saying, ‘But also, we need to be ready to change course in a very short period of time if something goes wrong.’”

Don’t be the one who fucks this up for everybody. This was the unwritten rule of the Milwaukee Bucks heading into their championship season. After a cop shot 29-year-old Black man Jacob Blake seven times but white teenager Kyle Rittenhouse roamed free with an AR-15-style rifle in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the team had boycotted a playoff game, launching a strike from the NBA’s science experiment in Disney World that rippled across the sports world. But they’d also faced obstacles throughout 2020, like a front-office staffer getting Covid twice in a single month. Preparing for life outside the Magic Kingdom, the Bucks would explicitly encourage staffers to sacrifice their social lives; if Giannis Antetokounmpo went from the gym to his mansion and back, so would you.

The NBA opened its truncated 2020-21 season that December — earlier than players would have liked — so that the league could recoup $500 million in television revenue. NBA protocols required twice-weekly nasal swabs for regular barbers and babysitters, which helped the Bucks contact-trace a coach’s childcare provider who became infected, multiple Bucks sources say. Any positive or inconclusive result in the NBA’s testing program triggers an interagency case review, beginning with the team’s daylong interviews, which it reports to the league office and its third-party contact-tracers, who can then conduct their own investigation — photos of locker rooms and dining halls, plane manifestos and bus seating charts, sit-downs at a player’s mansion. The big decision is whether or not to quarantine someone determined to be a close contact by this kind of nanny dragnet — an intern, a coach, an MVP — and that ruling remains up to teams, although the league can overrule them. Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant got pulled out of a game twice in one night, then forced to quarantine for a week, when a close contact tested positive. “Free me,” he tweeted.

By January, Covid was raging, and the NBA was forced to reschedule one game or more almost every day for a month — including a Bucks matchup against the Washington Wizards, one of a handful of teams that could barely field the minimum of eight players necessary to compete. Testing increased, hugs and high-fives with competitors were banned. Hotel-room visitors were shown the door. League owners dismissed a suspension of the season at an emergency meeting, but limiting interactions with people outside the NBA testing program would become the league’s top new pre-vaccine Covid priority.

Not a single Milwaukee player had “entered” the league’s so-called health-and-safety protocols — corporate speak for “tested positive for Covid-19” or “close contact after the entourage had a little too much fun” — until mid-February, when All-Star guard Jrue Holiday was placed in quarantine. Then, the city’s health department gave the franchise the all-clear to reopen its raucous Fiserv Forum at 10-percent capacity.

On March 23, players brought their wives, girlfriends, and family members to their practice facility in downtown Milwaukee for a breakfast spread with front-office staffers and coaches; they all booked a time slot and got their Johnson & Johnson vaccination doses in the conference room. “It was just really encouraging to see it, like, Oh-KAY, we made it through,” says the second NBA official, “whether that was the case or not.”

Antetokounmpo, whose sports agent and agency did not respond to emails seeking comment, did not openly address the vaccine until September 2021: “For me, I did what was best for me and my family to stay, you know, stay protected. And, uh, yeah, I’m vaccinated, you know. But, uh, in my opinion, you can never, you know, you can never force anybody to do something that they don’t want to do.”

“Who knows,” he continued, “how this vaccine gonna affect you down the road? I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.”

Back in April, Holiday offered narration for a public-service announcement over photos of players across the league with a sleeve rolled up, but two officials familiar with the NBA’s PSA productions say the league wouldn’t dare bother asking Antetokounmpo — and certainly not LeBron James — to promote the Covid vaccine. 

A former Bucks employee, who is unvaccinated, spoke to Rolling Stone on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing future work in the basketball industry. Last spring, the person believed themself to be the only unvaccinated employee in the Bucks’ basketball-operations staff. “There were a couple times when I was like, ‘Maybe I should just go get the shot,’” the person tells RS. “You know how bad I would have felt if I would have came into the office and tested positive and then it spreads to, like, Giannis getting sick?” The former employee says they were locked out of the Bucks’ practice facility, cut off from interaction with players, and banned from the lower bowl of the arena. “But you could do all the right things and still get it.”

As vaccines rolled out in the spring and health departments relented on mass gatherings, the masks came off. Just in time for the start of the playoffs in May, Milwaukee allowed full 16,500-seat capacity at Fiserv Forum, and the NBA’s Covid-hunters were cracking down a bit less: Vaccinated players and staff members could skip the nasal swab on off-days. They could even come in close contact with an infected family member at home — or a new friend at the team hotel room — and still not be required to quarantine.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - JULY 11: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 and his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo #43 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate their victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game Three of the NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum on July 11, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) and his brother Thanasis Antetokounmpo celebrate their victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game Three of the NBA Finals on July 11, 2021, in Milwaukee.

Justin Casterline/Getty Images

“We felt good about the vaccination status of the team,” says Lasry, the Bucks executive turned Senate candidate. “Look, when you’re trying to win a championship, the mental toll it takes and the sacrifice it takes from being away from your family, you’re trying to make everyone as comfortable as possible. So in all of this, you have to balance the risk and rewards, right?”

The Bucks’ first trip to Phoenix had been a disaster. Two losses to the Suns. Two planes. That damn indoor dinner at the steakhouse, which a restaurant manager told Rolling Stone was “a larger party” — cake and all — before an executive suddenly told her that the restaurant could not comment further. As a rapid response to the Delta variant, the NBA wouldn’t let players and staff eat anywhere but the hotel or privatized restaurants during the Finals. Still, it was one of the team’s few group events for a Covid variant to break through in an unrestricted city full of basketball parties. According to a memo outlining updated league protocols sent to teams prior to the playoffs and obtained by RS, the NBA had just relaxed its rule so that, as long as 85 percent of people on a team were vaccinated, their unvaxxed players and employees were no longer monitored for social distancing at “team activities.”

Head coach Mike Budenholzer, recalls a source in attendance, encouraged his team to spend time with their guests: “Bud was super-imperative that everybody goes and sits with their family members, so everybody actually went out for the most part and spent time with their friends and family who came on the trip on the charter. So we were fully interactive with those people.” (Budenholzer’s agent referred a request for comment to the Bucks, who declined to comment.)

“I don’t think you can point the finger at any one person,” one former Milwaukee staffer says. “When you introduce families and things like that, all of a sudden, it’s like everyone gets one guest, and they know the player’s agent — entire agencies go to these games, and they’re not regulated by anything. People get lazy. People get complacent.”

The Suns, meanwhile, had flown their employees up to Milwaukee for Game Four, then back the same night, with no hotel stays allowed — and two swabs required. The NBA had previously considered it beyond the bounds of an employer to do more than suggest Covid testing for family members and housemates. For the first time since allowing families and friends to enter its Disney World bubble for the later rounds of the 2020 playoffs, however, the league mandated that guests of both Bucks and Suns players participate in a mass-testing event before flying on any second team plane to the 2021 Finals. Suns employees who tested positive were not allowed to board, a league source and a team source recall. “Testing cannot directly prevent infections,” the NBA’s director of sports medicine, John DiFori, told Rolling Stone in September, “but it can prevent a spark of fire from becoming a wildfire.”

New cases linked to the Delta variant, on which the Centers for Disease Control had briefed the league office beginning in May, were escalating quickly in Arizona by mid-July. “Since it was changing and mutating, it’s one of those things that’s always in the back of your mind,” Howe, the Suns trainer, tells RS. “Hopefully, it doesn’t come outta nowhere — when you least suspect it — and then have an internal fire going on within our camp. That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Undeterred, Antetokounmpo had helped Milwaukee tie the series at two games apiece over the course of nearly seven days at home … time enough for symptoms from the first trip to show up. Literally: The forthcoming article in The New England Journal of Medicine found in last season’s NBA testing samples that a vaccinated player might be as susceptible as an unvaccinated one to breakthrough infection, but he definitely would clear the virus from his system after an average of five and a half days. An unvaxxed player, though, would carry the virus two to three times longer, says one of the paper’s many authors — “and therefore potentially infecting others, right?”

“If you’re in the Finals, there’s moments where you reach these stages as a team where it’s hard,” Dr. Christopher E. Mason, a molecular biologist who sits on a weekly call with the NBA examining positive cases, tells Rolling Stone. “The thing we can never forget is they’re human beings as much as they are continually monitored epidemiological data points. They are people. They will celebrate. They will pour champagne.… But the entourage effect is real: Is it in the entourage or out of it? Is it in the team? Is it the trainer? Is it the family? We’re looking at what do we know about everybody to try and keep everyone safe.”

For Game Five of the Finals, the sick, the entourages, and the sick entourages were left behind. Only one Bucks team plane returned to Phoenix.

And on July 17, the shit hit the fan, according to sources close to the team: A Milwaukee assistant coach, though asymptomatic, had tested positive. Two members of the medical team, and a scout on the road. One of the NBA’s referees would need to be replaced for that night’s game. Another assistant coach — one of Giannis’ favorites — worried about false positives in his family. A league source says the Bucks returned several false positives but not an abnormal amount given the regularity of inconclusive results; the outbreak was not a lab contamination. The former Milwaukee staffer tells RS that “there were coaches that were not on the bench in the Finals, and they did not have Covid. They were close enough in contact that multiple negative tests did not matter.” But the Bucks’ leaders decided, as the second NBA official recalls, “that we were in a decent enough place to get through the game.”

Less than four hours before tip-off came what multiple sources inside the organization call “an oh-shit moment”: Thanasis Antetokounmpo — the back-slapping, whisper-in-the-ear older brother and bench-warming teammate of the best player in the game — was sick with cold symptoms and getting sicker. (Thanasis’ agency did not respond to questions about his condition.) He had returned a false positive, been isolated and retested. He would have to miss Game Five, and word eventually arrived with a confirmed result: Positive for 2019-nCoV.

Chatter across the organization blew up: 

FUCK.

Damn, who was with T.A.?

Well, Giannis must have it.

The Antetokompos, after all, are inseparable. “Certainly those two guys’ connection and the closeness, everybody knows it,” Budenholzer, the head coach, told reporters 90 minutes before tip-off. “But, you know, I think we’re all good. We’re all ready. Ready to go.” Pressed by a reporter, he briefly and vaguely admitted that the Bucks would not be playing with a full staff.

Giannis — according to the NBA, the Bucks, and astonished members of their organization — tested negative. He was, apparently, Covid-free.

There were, at most, five days left in the season. The team’s contact-tracing family dragnets — for nannies and MVPs alike — were complex. The NBA and its third-party consultant have never grown contentious enough with teams to be a persistent threat of overruling their investigations of who and who should not enter quarantine. The NBA completed its usual contact-tracing process in the case of Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who also goes by T.A.; its own data, according to the New England Journal of Medicine paper, shows the peak viral spread among positive variant cases to last an average of five and a half days for vaccinated players. For the unvaxxed, it was about seven and a half.

“We probably did dodge a bullet,” a senior official involved in the Bucks’ Finals operation tells Rolling Stone. “If we wouldn’t have won that game, it might’ve come back that he was traced around T.A. at that time. Or it could’ve been the whole team. T.A. was in the locker room — he was sick, he had symptoms. We didn’t know who else was gonna come up positive.”

After scoring 32 points in the pivotal Game Five, the new face of the NBA FaceTimed his brother, who was forced to hole up in a hotel room. Giannis approached the dais for his post-game press conference but, dehydrated and feeling stomach cramps, left to receive an IV treatment, then returned 30 minutes later. “I’m a softie,” he joked to the press. He would later admit to throwing up five times in a trash can. Giannis had burgers waiting for him on a catering spread, a lineup of socially distanced to-go boxes. He got another IV at the hotel, and hightailed it to a heavily sanitized plane home for Game Six. 

“Bucks in six” was the Milwaukee fans’ rallying cry — internally, with whispers of a franchise-wide sequestration, it was more like Bucks in six … or else. “That’s when I was thinking, like, ‘We cannot go back to Phoenix,’” says the high-ranking Bucks official, of a potential single-elimination seventh game on the road. “Not even about winning and losing the game but the reality that we may not have all of our players anymore with us.”

The court is covered with people in celebration after the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns 105-98 in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals in Milwaukee, Tuesday, July 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The court is covered with people in celebration after the Bucks beat the Suns 105-98 in Game Six of the NBA Finals in Milwaukee, July 20, 2021.

Paul Sancya/AP

Whenever special guests check in at downtown Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel, they tend to inspect the closets. Visiting baseball stars have told ghost stories for years, of mysteriously torn-up suites, turned-on radios, and a spirit stomping down the halls. So as soon as the Bucks put up a contingent including their head coach and general manager at the Pfister for the two nights surrounding Game Six, one front-office staffer knew to stare a little longer at the oil-painted portraits on the wall. “Obviously you have to double-check,” the staffer joked, “and make sure they didn’t move.”

The Bucks’ self-imposed isolation — “high-end basketball prison,” the former Milwaukee staffer called it — was one of several adaptive measures to finish an increasingly high-wire sporting event as quickly and quietly as possible. So-called Tier One employees who interacted with players and had tested positive, or come into contact with those who had, would be forced to watch the rest of the series from afar. 

“Everybody was so scared, but it wasn’t frustration; it was like, ‘Look, I’m going to my room, and I’m going to the plane,’” the senior official says. “That was the behind-the-scenes theory of Covid in the NBA: You had to really be a team. And that was the beauty of it: If you stayed within the confines of those tiers, then you were fine. So if somebody did get it, it’s somebody that’s not working with the team day-to-day — when you get to the Finals, you really don’t want to be that person.”

Senior NBA officials were eager to avoid a repeat of March 2020, when the Covid-19 case of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert temporarily ended the season. The 2021 Finals outbreak was to remain on the down-low.

“Every game that went on, they were increasingly nervous that it was not going to be able to be finished,” says the former Milwaukee staffer of the Covid scare. “With so many people around Giannis testing positive, I couldn’t believe no one knew about it.”

But this was the big business of basketball, and NBA revenues had taken a nose-dive throughout the pandemic. Postponing primetime games starring “The Greek Freak” or closing the curtain on one of the biggest moments in sport — and threatening $2 billion in annual TV money — was an absolute last resort for a league seeking to generate $10 billion during its upcoming 75th-anniversary season. The regular call with the league’s epidemiological advisers and NBA brass showed support for the beefed-up playoff policies. “We never were in the position where we had to consider postponing a Finals game,” Weiss, the league’s Covid czar, tells Rolling Stone. “The physicians and medical experts advising us and the Players Association were confident that the stringent protocols we had in place would allow us to safely finish the series, and they were correct.”

One of those experts was Dr. Lisa Maragakis of Johns Hopkins, who counseled commissioner Adam Silver in relative real-time: “The league has been very sensitive to the risks that having players or staff who test positive close to the rest of the team, and therefore to their mission of being able to continue the season, so it definitely causes a lot of stress when players test positive, particularly when there’s a cluster of people on a team that have Covid,” Dr. Maragakis tells RS. “We try to keep everyone safe, while still allowing them to do what they need to do.”

The second NBA official acknowledges that, if the Antetokounmpo brothers had shared one more hug too many, the team might’ve preferred an asterisk in the history books: “We weren’t worried about them postponing the Finals. We were more worried about them continuing on, and then if Giannis had potentially gotten it, it would have been a wrap for us. If they’d postponed it, that would have been great! Maybe they wait two weeks, and Giannis, in the best-case scenario, they wait two weeks and he plays. We were more so concerned about potentially losing Giannis.”

The NBA does so much testing of so many people around its players, say researchers who use its data, that the league has created a kind of shield. “That really allows them to stay one step ahead of infection and to prevent major outbreaks from happening,” says Kissler, the Harvard researcher who helped study nearly 200,000 tests from players, staff, and traveling parties last season. “So even if a player does get infected, it keeps the problem from really spiraling out of hand.”

After a year of standing by for a morning email, members of both teams’ front offices managed to find a log-in to check their test results as soon as scientifically possible, in the hours ahead of Game Six on July 20. “Phones were shaking,” remembers the second NBA official. “There was a lot of nervousness,” the Suns source says.

Despite their extended pregame embraces, Giannis had already been spending less time with his brother before Thanasis’ diagnosis, says the second NBA official: “He was just kind of like this extra voice in his head that he didn’t really need.” The MVP doesn’t like going to team dinners. He’d received private attention from the team’s medical staff, avoiding further close contact with the infected. He returned another negative test. Only his brother and six staffers tested positive within the NBA Finals inner sanctum. “There was no outbreak,” the league’s Covid czar claims.

In the end, or at least for one more night, Giannis was invincible enough: He scored 50 points, and the Milwaukee Bucks escaped emergency holding a shiny gold trophy with a basketball on top.

As the confetti snowflaked upon a court transforming into a stage, Justice Bartley, at the time a player-development and video assistant with the Bucks, remembers calling up Thanasis in his hotel room on FaceTime, then handing the phone to Giannis … who wanted to go visit his virus-stricken sibling.

“No! No! No!,” bellowed big brother. “I’ll take the bullet for this one,” Bartley recalls Thanasis telling Giannis on the court. “I’ll see you when I’m healthy.”

Giannis, holding his son in one hand, passed off the phone with his other, and Adam Silver took the mic: “We made it!”

In the locker room, the champagne was flowing, the team was ready for a trip to Vegas without their MVP — or the NBA’s Covid police — and Giannis pleaded with his brother once more, this time live on Instagram, to let him bust into quarantine. 

After the championship parade in Milwaukee, a senior official with direct knowledge of the Bucks’ crisis tells Rolling Stone, several more people came down with the virus.

“Once we won, everybody forgot there was Covid,” the other high-ranking official says. “All protocols went out the window.”

Matt Sullivan is the author of Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow. He has been an editor at “The New York Times,” “The Atlantic,” “The Guardian,” “Esquire,” and Bleacher Report.

In This Article: coronavirus, Covid, covid-19, direct, NBA, RSreports

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.