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Falling Short of the Moment

Bucks and NBA at-large falter in the face of crisis

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NBA: Milwaukee Bucks-Media Day Mike De Sisti-USA TODAY Sports

If there is any lesson that has been reinforced during the 2019-2020 NBA season, it is this: The NBA, for all the plaudits it receives, can and often is caught flat-footed in the face of a serious crisis.

The season got off on the wrong foot before basketball had even begun with the fallout from Daryl Morey’s laughably light endorsement of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong and the relatively bumbling response from damn near everybody in the league when the Communist Party of China cracked the whip. What was normally a league accustomed to racking up praise from numerous parties for its public stands against bigotry, racism, and failings of social justice suddenly found itself sputtering for a response that was better than, “Well, uh, you know, maybe we should keep our mouths shut about how they run things in over there.”

It was an inglorious moment for all involved; even worse, the strategy was bewilderingly copied from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver down to the owners, through the players, and eventually even to members of the media who are relatively tight with the league.

Regarding our own local concerns, the Milwaukee Bucks largely stayed out of that maelstrom by keeping quiet outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo giving a largely non-answer answer to the situation at its height.

Now, months later, we’ve run into yet another crisis in which the NBA failed to cover itself in glory. Of course, the speed with which the novel coronavirus — AKA Covid-19 — spread in the US has caught numerous parties off-guard: Look no further than the federal government, countless multinational firms, and other sporting organizations for plenty of lessons in unpreparedness in the face of fast-moving force majeure.

First, there were the couple of games played by the Golden State Warriors even in the face of San Francisco’s initial wave of infections; the solution then was to simply post warnings for fans that attending could be dangerous thus removing responsibility from the team for any viral exposure.

Then, as cases began to sprout up across the country and the terrible writing on the wall (made from the ink of the nigh-collapse of the Italian healthcare system under the weight of the infection spread) earned a bit of illumination, instead of proactively calling even a temporary halt to games, the NBA Board of Governors were actively exploring any option rather than put a halt to games. That included, but was not limited to, playing games without fans in attendance, moving entire teams from their home arenas to areas of the country not yet impacted by the virus, or saying to hell with it all and moving forward until public authorities shut things down.

One could argue that these positions are reasonable for any private entity in America; after all, in times of fundamental chaos most look to authorities with resources and legal force available only to them to guide the nation in managing a response. However, in the face of sluggish (to put it mildly and as un-politically as possible) movement from Washington, it quickly became incumbent upon the NBA and its individual teams — as quasi-public/private institutions who build so much of their identity off of integration with their local community — to do something before it was too late.

Instead, the league waited until its hand was absolutely forced by the positive virus test by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert on Wednesday night. Since, the NBA has suspended the season, another player has been diagnosed, and the gears of the league brought to a grinding halt.

To the Bucks credit, they didn’t come out advocating for continuation of the season in the face of all odds. They cannot be blamed for the Dolan’s of the world, for the Fertitta’s of the world, and for any other cavalier ownership group who wanted to keep on keeping on until the last moment. Still, they are an integral part of the parent organization, and so the NBA’s failing is, to some extent, theirs as well.

It would be enough if the team had ceased all activities and we were left on hiatus. Obviously we’d rather have games on, but given the scale of the challenge ahead it is understandable why they won’t be forthcoming.

Except the Bucks went ahead and stepped in it this afternoon.

Of utmost concern once the safety of the players was assured was the fate of the numerous staff who count on Bucks games happening to provide a paycheck, especially in this moment of massive economic turmoil and uncertainty about when (or if) the season will restart. Those faceless individuals who help keep the ship afloat on game-day are as integral to the team’s operation as the players.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the Bucks themselves.

However, when faced with an opportunity to live up to the moment and guarantee that staff will still be able to rely upon some level of consistent income from the team even in the face of a challenge completely not of their making, the Bucks announced a policy that shifts the burden from their ownership group — worth purportedly billions of dollars between them — and on to the players:

While what Giannis did is absolutely worth praising, it should not fall on the players to shell out to take care of everyone in the organization. If they want to contribute, great, but ultimately the responsibility falls on ownership to rise above the moment and prove that they are truly stewards of the community.

Perhaps they will have quickly changed the policy given the poor light it shines on upper management, so hopefully this will all be moot. But in the face of a crisis that will undoubtedly slam those without billions at their disposal, ownership wilted from the moment.

A shame, too. I wonder what that $250 million in arena money and luxury tax savings are doing these days.