In basketball, people get close

This ain’t golf

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BY HENRY ABBOTT

The socially distanced version of grocery shopping is one-way aisles, masks, and limited traffic. The socially distanced version of burritos is takeout.

The socially distanced version of golf is … golf.

Basketball might not have a socially distanced version that preserves the sport’s essential elements. 

These nuns have two teams, a ball, passing, and a net. It’s an A+ for awesome. But it’s not basketball.

Emptying the stands might mitigate the risk for fans. Tests might make things OK for the NBA’s big-budget players. But on the average court, the sport played by hundreds of millions of people around the globe is the most social of all. It’s the game where strangers roll together, sweat on each other, bump into each other. It’s a big part of what makes this one of the globe’s most popular pastimes. 

Everyone can play means everyone can play. The NBA is a lot of things—a league, a brand, home of the best players of all time. It’s also—by design—a caretaker of the sport, a heavy-hitter in the Olympic movement, the Hall of Fame, and in fixing up courts at schools and parks around the globe. 

The NBA is opening some practice facilities to some players soon. It’ll be the first baby step toward a full resumption of play. But what about the bigger game, the one that’ll never have tests and bubbles? When do we put the rims back up in public parks? When will non-NBA basketball be back?


I wanted to give this story a headline with the word “touch” in it, but it’s impossible. Pedophiles and creeps ruined that word, the rest of the world has basically said “keep it.” 

Which is a weird thing to do to something we need almost as badly as oxygen. 

Healthy, safe touching is as necessary as a mother’s hug, and tough for the NBA 2K generation to find. A tiny example: When they can, children today shoot around like NBA players, with about one ball per person—that’s without a pandemic. And it’s a good way to remain in your own little world. 

The norm was once about one ball per hoop. Then you quickly get to learn a lot about each other. You need a rebound or a friend to ever get a shot. So while a few people stretch, chat, or sip Gatorade, most players jam under the hoop and learn how to get rebounds or make friends. You also get a crash course in who’s wearing deodorant, whose shirt is soaked, whose new knee brace has metal in it, who can make a nice pass through traffic, who’s lefty shots just started falling, who’s pissed off today and might need a little room. 

Somewhere in this mess kicks up the mouthy genius of basketball. Everyone on the court knows if anyone makes four in a row, she’ll get those passes with some teasing lip, that teasing lip creates the safe space in which the game can be a little harsh and thrillingly more fun than it could be with referees and uniforms. Maybe we don’t generally have good ways for ten strangers to begin talking to each other, but in basketball we do. 

And it comes with a laundry list of accepted—no, required—touching:

  • When your teammate shoots, I jam my back in your front.  

  • Posting up is a lot of things, try any of them at work and you’d be likely to get fired.

  • Screening is intimate enough that one of the game’s most fundamental lessons is to cover your genitals.

  • It’s a strategic crisis for anyone to be all alone. If they are, someone might yell: “put a body on him.”

  • It’s good citizenship to touch every single person on the court at the end of the game—high fives, fist bumps, etc.

Three selections from “Give and Go: Basketball as a Cultural Practice” by Thomas McLaughlin:

  • “Some are balanced and light-footed; some are muscle-bound and bullish. Some are angular, some are fluid. Part of the fascination of the game for fans is the idiosyncratic movement styles of the great players, from the transcendent grace and power of Michael Jordan to the darting speed of Allen Iverson to sheer strength of Shaquille O’Neal.”

  • “There is an aesthetic, kinesthetic appeal to sport, almost independent of its competitive goals. The competitive and utilitarian function of movement in sport is part of its traditional masculinity, but that function does not explain all of the appeal of athletic movement.”

  • “What if the ball is just an excuse for men to dance together? Maybe the competitiveness of sport is an excuse for joyful movement and bodily contact, a way of minimizing homophobia while still enjoying the ‘feminine’ pleasures of exuberant movement, friendly bodily contact, and complicated coordination in space.”

I’m not doing some big homoerotic expose. I’m saying that if you like a lot of messy contact, so much it often hurts, you’ll like this sport. (David Thorpe reminds us of this scene in “Along Came Polly.”) If you don’t like a lot of contact, this was probably never going to be for you. Part of the good, clean, fun is the intense and constant physicality. We crave it.

Other than a nightclub or a Florida spring break in a pandemic, how many ways are there for strangers to—I wish there were a better phrase—touch each other? Touch matters to us very deeply, babies need hugs. Adults do too. (A quick reminder that research shows the most successful military units show the most love for each other.) Basketball solves a problem way deeper than exercise, as we discussed with New Yorker writer Thomas Beller on BRING IT IN on Monday.


By the evening of Thursday, March 5, the number of suspected coronavirus cases spreading from Biogen’s late February conference in Boston was problematic for one of the nation’s best hospitals. A team of Boston Globe writers reports “Biogen officials asked employees to refrain from going to [Massachusetts General Hospital] to be tested for the coronavirus. The e-mail said their efforts ‘are overwhelming the emergency room’ and that hospital police may have to bar Biogen employees from entering the area.”

That day, I arrived in Boston by Amtrak, to attend the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and took the T to my Airbnb in Cambridge. As we moved north, the train climbed above ground, exposing a chilly sunny day outside. But inside it was mind-blowingly overcrowded, I kept moving my small roller bag so people could get on or off at the different stops, with every lurch and sway we all bumped each other. I remember being so annoyed at a woman and her young child, just five or six, who made no efforts at all to cover their juicy coughs, snot dropping all over. I made the most grave promises not to touch my face. 

We were in the salad days of the coronavirus—it had well and truly arrived, but social distancing had not.

Part of the reason I chose my particular Airbnb was proximity to the T. The next morning, I walked, an hour, to the conference instead. When I got there, people, (myself included, once or twice) ... were still hugging! It looked like regular life, but with elbow touches, Lysol wipes, and higher heart rates.

Plenty of attendees and speakers escaped the virus early—some on Friday, even. Being there felt risky. At Saturday dinner, in a crowded restaurant, I sat next to a journalist I had just met. She saw how we were leaning over each, eating from shared plates and not wearing masks. She had heard stories from her family in China. She declared with definitely-dark maybe-irony: “we’re ALL getting the coronavirus.” 

I showered when I got back to the Airbnb, put in a load of laundry, wiped down my laptop and drifted off watching Netflix thankful my trip was basically over, and hoping I hadn’t exposed anyone or been exposed. Whatever the cost/benefit of attending the conference, however stupid we had all been to attend … it was over now. I had a ticket home the next day.

Except … I had my alarm set to play Sunday morning pickup basketball. I just couldn’t not go. At the Harvard Business School gym, they hand you a plush white towel as you walk in. The locker room is divine. I washed my hands between every game, changed shirts to keep my sweat off other people, and at one point even washed off my whole sweaty bald head in a locker room sink. I think we met at 10 am, I had a rough idea that I’d shower and catch a quick bite before my 1:45 pm train. Instead, I ran around, bumped into people, boxed out, and missed runners in traffic and had such a blast that by the time I next looked at my watch it was 1:30. 

Nobody has ever showered and Ubered to South Station faster. I still smelled like business school soap as I wiped down the tray, arm rest, seat back, plug, keyboard, screen on the Northeast Regional. That Amtrak train hopscotched from one COVID hotspot to the next: one stop is New Rochelle, pioneers of quarantine. Another was New York. Obliterating all residue of people is a survival skill—for now. 

I was thrilled when one week, and then two, passed without symptoms. But dammit, in the last great risky decision before quarantine, I freaking played basketball. Full contact basketball. It was magical. 


The Lakers flirt with a bailout

My friend Kevin Arnovitz broke what is proving to be a huge story: The Lakers received, and then returned, nearly $5 million in federal bailout dollars. 

It just looks terrible to employ LeBron James and ask for a handout. It’s so clearly unpopular that even the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is calling the Lakers out.

But it’s hard to say who has done a worse job tending to the public. From its launch, this program has carried the whiff of corruption. (Everyone I know with a real, actual struggling small business has not gotten a loan. All kinds of people with deep pockets and connections have.) Judd Legum of Popular Information explains a structural flaw:

This is supposed to be a small business program, but this structure incents banks to serve large companies. A bank can earn $2500 by processing a $50,000 loan or $50,000 by processing a $5,000,000 loan. Larger companies that pay their workers more qualify for larger loans because the amount is based on a multiple of the company's monthly payroll.  

This is why Nathan's Famous Hotdogs, which sells products in 78,000 locations nationwide, got a $1.2 million loan. But Ben's Chilli Bowl, an iconic local restaurant, is still waiting in line. (Nathan's Famous Hotdogs announced Monday it would return the money.)

The fees may also explain why many banks appear willing to approve loans for large companies that were clearly not the intended beneficiaries of the program.

Aaron Klein, who worked in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration, suggested that banks should be paid a flat fee instead of a percentage of the loan to help level the playing field. Klein also suggested capping the maximum loan at $1 million, down from the current limit of $10 million. Thus far, loans over $1 million have consumed more than 44% of the available funds. 

Trump donor Monty Bennett, who was paid $5.6 million last year to manage a group of luxury hotels, has been able to obtain over $96 million in Paycheck Protection Program loans by applying through dozens of subsidiaries. 

On the one hand, I have sympathy for the Lakers and their employees. The business really must be feeling the pinch. Other NBA teams are always jealous of the Lakers’ giant local revenues. The Lakers are always jealous of the other owners’ giant non-basketball resources. Steve Ballmer has Microsoft stock and the Clippers. Jeanie Buss has the Lakers … and the Lakers. 

That’s why the “richer” Lakers, and not the Clippers, have already had salary cuts and really may have layoffs (like they did in the lockout). Compared to most teams’ governors, Jeanie Buss and siblings do not have deep pockets. This could hurt. Returning those loans really might put people on unemployment. 

On one hand it’s rich that the incredibly wealthy Mnuchin (who has himself been credibly accused of profiteering) is pointing fingers.

On the other hand: You can do some googling and see photos of the houses, cars, and vacations all of Dr. Jerry Buss’s kids enjoy. Bentleys, extraordinary vacations, stunning homes. Another way to save some of those Laker jobs would be to have dialed all that back a long time ago, or to have run the business of the Lakers better. 

The approach has not been “Moneyball,” it has been “chasing butterflies.” This team has been last to analytics, loathe to consider expertise from outside a tiny sphere, and run by a noted fabulist. It hasn’t just been a multi-faceted shitshow, it has been an expensive multi-faceted shitshow. When you run things that way, it's tough to justify a bailout.

Now that they’ve returned the money, though, who cares? 

The low-ranking Lakers employees whose jobs might be chopped. And anyone who hopes Adam Silver will deploy compassion for the public in settling on a plan to reopen the league. 

Think about Silver’s bosses. As he considers the many issues involved in reopening, he is responsible, daily, to the board of governors, which includes Jeanie Buss, Micky Arison whose Carnival Cruise lines reportedly launched party ships in a pandemic, Tilman Fertitta who laid off two-thirds of his employees at the first whiff of shutdown, Josh Harris whose starting center had to put a stop to a plan to cut 76er employee salaries, and so on. 

Lives were at stake in how Silver closed the league, and lives are at stake in how he re-opens it. The self interest of this group of bosses is glaring. And understandable to a business obsessed with the bottom line. But if that’s your obsession, are you really qualified to weigh in on grave decisions that must take the public into account?

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Image at the top: Masterfile