The NBA knows how to treat superheroes

What can we do for healthcare workers?


BY HENRY ABBOTT

Other than Gayle Benson’s million-dollar fund, so far the NBA’s billionaire governors tend to fit into one of two categories: Those who have pledged toward NBA Twitter’s favorite cause—to pay arena workers while the stadiums are dark—and those who have not. 

Important as it is for those workers to have much-needed money, I’m eager to see news of billionaires doing far more. The uber rich, including those who run the NBA, have played outsized roles in shaping the policies, picking the leaders, and building the structures we find ourselves working with now. And here we are: more billionaires than ever, low taxes on the wealthiest, and profound public need.

And the NBA is a place where the well-connected super-wealthy congregate. I’d hate for anyone out there to have more money than ideas about how to help. So ...

There were many good answers.

Amazing news is that who’s who of the NBA is already all over this PSA thing. Stephen Curry, Dwyane Wade, Damian Lillard, and on and on. NBA players are spreading the word, and the NBA itself is playing a leading role.

I would add: lean on your favorite politician to do the right thing. NBA bigwigs are well positioned to get the attention of this White House. Adam Silver is close personal friends with Jared Kushner, who is central to the nation’s response. Jared Kushner’s brother Josh invested in the Memphis Grizzlies and has played some kind of role adjacent to the White House COVID-19 response. 76ers governor Josh Harris has business ties to the White House, as does Hawks governor Tony Ressler. The group that owns the Oklahoma City Thunder has deep ties to the GOP. Richard DeVos owns the Orlando Magic, has chaired the Republican National Committee’s finance committee, and calls both Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and noted White House insider Erik Prince family.

Imagine if the pandemic caused any or all of these people who already influence the White House to push for some of the commonsense measures that are on the table?


All that aside, today one particular idea has me transfixed:

The NBA knows how to treat people so that they can behave like superheroes. Over the last few decades, teams have invested mightily in seeing to it that NBA players eat healthy meals, get meaningful sleep, and have access to the best care and support. The best players have approaches that are so refined that LeBron James feels the benefits of reducing his screen time in the playoffs, say, or CJ McCollum says he meditates three times a day and uses breathing techniques he learned from military snipers.

Science writer Christie Aschwanden (you should read her excellent book “Good to Go”) has researched deeply what contributes to elite performance. It’s not a lot of gadgets, hacks, or quick fixes. But it is a lot of common sense and, interestingly, managing stress. She says, “stress is stress.” By that she means a thing like a big argument with your spouse or worry about a sick relative can affect your performance just as much as playing in a back to back. 

NBA players inevitably deal with unavoidable stress: travel, absentee parenting, opponents who want to intimidate and outmuscle them, teammates who want to take their minutes, the media. But NBA teams, in their wisdom, have invested in keeping players from as much stress as possible—so they can do their superhero jobs. Players don’t have to book their own flights or find places to work on their games. NBA practice facilities are gorgeous, spacious, high-ceilinged, and well-stocked. They tend to be staffed with people who are eager to help and standing by. It all helps fuel elite performance. 

We need superheroes right now.

Elena Pagliarini has been on my mind all weekend, as a symbol of everyone fighting COVID-19 on the front lines, and in hospitals. What does she need?

I’m guessing that if you asked her she’d say a lot of what she needs are things that are in short supply. More nurses, tests, ventilators, and protective gear, for instance. But those aren’t the only things that might help her. She described feeling “shattered” on the job. Removing daily stressors might make her better at her work. Let’s brainstorm on that. 

Over the next few months, I believe we will get more and better coronavirus care from our limited number of healthcare workers, like the Italian nurse in the photo above, if: 

  • She and her team have a decent amount of square footage to care for patients, to work, to eat, to nap.

  • With schools closed, the children of hospital workers are well cared for. 

  • Someone grocery shops for her.

  • Someone walks her dog.

  • She knows her income is secure (a surprising issue).

  • When her shift ends, she can take a shower.

  • She can have clean fresh clothes at the ready. 

  • A nice person hands her a ready-made to-go container with hot, healthy dinner for her whole family.

If you’re incredibly rich, you might or might not be able to write a check to get America more nurses or ventilators. But you could certainly write a check to do that other stuff. You could get that going today.


Can you really increase the square footage of a hospital quickly? It’s already in the plans. Many—from Joe Biden to Andrew Cuomo—have called on the military to build field hospitals now. Leana S. Wen is an emergency room physician and Baltimore’s former health commissioner. She writes for the Washington Post:

The photo in this Wall Street Journal article, from Tongji Hospital in Wuhan, shows the perils of battling pandemics in close quarters. The hospital had run out of not only beds but also chairs—patients are receiving IVs standing up. 

If anyone in that room is not already infected with COVID-19, what are the odds they’ll stay that way? What are the odds the stress of that might impair the ability to deliver care?

Current expectations are that we will be drastically short of healthcare workers. Current guidelines are that any healthcare worker with a documented exposure to COVID-19 has to be out of work for 14 days. We need to keep healthcare workers healthy—social isolation matters in hospitals too, and that requires space.

In Wuhan, eventually, hospitals were set up in all kinds of places, including on the floor of a stadium. Jason Horowitz of The New York Times reports that in Italy, “hospitals are erecting inflatable, sealed-off infectious disease tents on their grounds. In Brescia, patients are crowded into hallways.”

The medical world would benefit from an immediate infusion of real estate. All these closed schools and universities—I have to think some of them might be turned into makeshift hospitals. On its base level, the NBA has 29 stadiums. Some have attached, nearby, or integrated restaurants, parking, hotels, condominiums, health clubs, and practice facilities that are barely in use during the pandemic. San Francisco’s sparkling new Chase Center is surrounded by many blocks of the UCSF Medical Center, a Kaiser Permanente healthcare facility, several pharmacies, and a waterfront park. What a miracle it would be for hospitals to get phone calls offering that kind of space.

As a smaller step, wherever you’re reading this you’re not too far from a party supply place, with garages and trucks full of the most incredible tents that were scheduled for weddings that have been postponed or canceled. We are lucky that the forecast is pretty mild in most of the U.S. Wouldn’t you love it if every hospital got a call today from someone offering to finance the installation of a network of giant tents? 

At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, they have already set up triage tents outside, Sarah Kliff reports in The New York Times, “with chairs spaced 6 feet apart, the distance the World Health Organization recommends for separating infected individuals — and additional beds inside will increase the hospital’s emergency department capacity by 40 percent.”

The Journal of the American Medical Association just published updated guidelines for patients suspected of COVID-19 infections. Square footage factors into four or these five points:

And let’s remember again that healthcare worker whose stress we want to reduce. I just heard a first-hand story of how one New Jersey nurse goes home to her kids after every shift. She leaves her scrubs at the hospital to be laundered, washes up as best she can at the hospital, and then changes into another pair of scrubs. Then she drives home, ditches the cleaner scrubs on the doorstep, showers, and puts on clean clothes. Only then can she get to the business of being a mom, while worrying about everything she may have infected along the way.

How awesome would it be if, instead, hospital workers had these shower and laundry trailers waiting outside, day and night? How awesome would it be if there were fresh clean clothes—maybe even brand new clothes, as a treat—to drive home in? And, while we’re at it, a to-go meal from a local restaurant, or some bags of groceries?

A project like that would work and support much-needed revenue for the tent rental place, shops, restaurants, and more. A project like that would do a lot for a community. A project like that is within the scope of reality. Maybe there are smarter ideas. Maybe NBA governors have already been more generous, thoughtful, and useful. I certainly hope so. But if not, I’d love to see things like this start happening. Rarely can money make such an immediate difference to so many people. 


Stephen Ilardi is a practicing clinician, and a national expert in treating depression, and an expert in analytics. He has been crunching some numbers.

His conclusion:


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