As sports leagues around the world come to a sudden halt amid the threat of the novel coronavirus, the Toronto Raptors players and staff are in self-isolation, awaiting test results for the disease.
Toronto’s reigning NBA champs will be isolated in their homes for 14 days after a trip to Utah, where they played the Jazz. That team’s star players, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, have since tested positive for the virus.
“Our team doctors remain in communication with infection-control specialists and public-health authorities, and we will continue to abide by their advice,” the Raptors said in a statement on Thursday.
The Jazz announced the first positive test (later confirmed as Gobert) moments before they were scheduled to tip off against the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Wednesday evening. The NBA then swiftly announced it would suspend the season, following hours later with news it was halting play in its G League, too.
Before learning of that news, the Raptors, who arrived home to Toronto from Utah on Tuesday, made two appearances Wednesday night at private events that included hundreds of guests. They included the launch of coach Nick Nurse’s foundation and a Norman Powell bowling fundraiser for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto, which raised $105,000.
The Raptors statement said that, according to Toronto Public Health, being in close contact with someone who does not have COVID-19 – but was exposed to someone with COVID-19 – does not constitute a risk for getting COVID-19 and does not require public health follow-up.
Team officials and their partners in staging those two events recommended that guests who attended should “continue to monitor their health, practise physical distancing and hand washing, and contact a health professional should they develop symptoms.”
“We were hearing at the time there were about 78 cases across all of Canada, and that the risk of contracting the virus at a small event like this would be very low,” said Leanne Nicolle, president and CEO at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Toronto and an organizer of Powell’s event. “It was an invite-only, private event with about 200 people. We took every precaution to make sure people were protecting themselves.”
About 10 Raptors attended the bowling event, which included club security staff. Guests watched from a distance as the NBA players held their own small bowling competition, with each player supplied with his own ball. Guests were told in advance they would not bowl with the players this year, as had been done at last year’s event, and could not get autographs or selfies with the basketball stars.
Organizers, eager to assure Powell how seriously they were taking his safety, used a newly purchased microphone for him to address the crowd, even unsealing its packaging in front of him. They also gave him a Sharpie marker right out of the package, so he could sign a few new basketballs to leave behind for future fundraisers.
The bowling alley had been sanitized. Only a few news cameras were allowed and all had to use boom microphones and keep a distance during a short question-and-answer with Powell. Guests bowled after the players left.
“The players left our event around 8:30 p.m. and it wasn’t until after that the news broke about the Utah Jazz and the NBA season,” Nicolle said. “But because of the many precautions we took, we really believe the chances of anyone getting it at our event were very low.”
Some team members also popped by the launch of the Nick Nurse Foundation in Toronto on Wednesday night, a charity to help implement basketball, literacy and music programs for kids across the city.
Nurse, who plays guitar, performed a few songs with Hamilton-based rock band Arkells at the event. One person in attendance said news of Gobert’s positive test, and the NBA’s decision to suspend its season, broke right before they performed the short set and Nurse left quickly after they played.
A few days ago, Gobert, had been captured on video making light of the NBA’s measures to keep players at a safe distance from media by jokingly touching all of their recorders and microphones after his interview.
On Thursday, Gobert apologized.
“I have gone through so many emotions since learning of my diagnosis … mostly fear, anxiety and embarrassment,” Gobert wrote on his Instagram account. “I would like to apologize to the people that I might have endangered. At the time, I had no idea I was even infected. I was careless and make no excuse. I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously. ... I am under great care and I will fully recover.”
Mitchell also posted about his positive test, which came Thursday.
“Thanks to everyone who has been reaching out since hearing the news about my positive test,” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram message. “We are all learning more about the seriousness of this situation and hopefully people can continue to educate themselves and realize that they need to behave responsibly both for their own health and for the well being of those around them.
“I appreciate the authorities in Oklahoma who were helpful with the testing process and everyone from the Utah Jazz who have been so supportive. I am going to keep following the advice of our medical staff and hope that we can all come together and be there for each other and our neighbors who need our help.”
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment released its own statement late Thursday saying it is fully engaged with the NBA, NHL and MLS – leagues in which it has teams that have postponed play.
“The health and safety of our fans, teams, employees and the general public is our highest priority at all times,” said Michael Friisdahl, president and CEO of MLSE. “As we work through this difficult and unprecedented situation, we are thankful for the understanding and support we have received from our fans and partners, including our leagues and the live entertainment community. Our employees have shown great professionalism, as always, during this unpredictable time, and we are currently finalizing programs to assist our part-time and event staff, made up of close to 4,000 dedicated event personnel.”
In addition to the suspension of the NBA, NHL and MLS seasons at Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field, and current touring arena shows domestically and internationally, Toronto Rock Lacrosse games and private events at the venues have also been postponed.
Other NBA players reacted Thursday to the tumultuous 2019-20 NBA season, which also had to cope with the sudden death of legendary player Kobe Bryant. Cleveland Cavaliers star Kevin Love committed US$100,000 to help support Cavs’ arena staff and challenged others to support their communities.
“Don’t know what to compare this situation to … just gotta buckle up and take care of yourself and those around you,” Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry said. "Basketball will be back at some point but right now, protect yourself and stay safe out there.”