When COVID Chaos Canceled the NBA
The new HBO doc “The Day Sports Stood Still” features athletes revisiting when Rudy Gobert’s coronavirus diagnosis abruptly ended the NBA season—and other leagues followed suit.
We’ve now passed the one-year anniversary of the start of America’s COVID-19 nightmare, and while the vaccine rollout continues to gain steam—suggesting that the summer and beyond will be a stark improvement over what we’ve all just gone through—things have yet to return to anything resembling normal. Thus, in this present environment of continuing lockdowns and virus-prevention protocols, it’s difficult to understand the purpose of The Day Sports Stood Still, which looks back at the tumultuous early months of the pandemic for the NBA and, by extension, sports leagues nationwide. A slight, somber recap that has nothing to say about the well-remembered recent events it depicts, it’s an unnecessary trip back to a 2020 best left in the past.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, HBO’s documentary (premiering March 25) focuses on the outbreak of COVID-19 in the National Basketball Association, which began on March 11, when a game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder at the latter’s Chesapeake Energy Arena was halted after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive. Thunder star Chris Paul, who’s also served as the National Basketball Players Association president since 2013, recalls this incident in exacting detail in The Day Sports Stood Still, his Skype commentary expertly married to footage from that evening’s interrupted contest. As far as placing one back in that very particular moment in time, the sequence gets the job done.
There’s no actual suspense to this footage, however, since anyone with a passing interest in sports remembers that night’s insanity quite vividly. Paul’s own thoughts are of a rather straightforward and mundane variety, as are those of Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, who talks about the confusion of those first few minutes, and the fear that set in once it became clear that Gobert was infected—and, as a result, that he and the rest of his teammates were at risk. Mitchell himself subsequently tested positive, but The Day Sports Stood Still only addresses that through the image of Mitchell’s tweet announcing the news, failing to have him directly discuss it in his own Skype interview for the film. That’s a strange and somewhat glaring omission, as is Fuqua opting to wholly ignore Gobert’s infamous media appearance that night, when he arrogantly—and recklessly—ended his pregame press conference by touching every microphone in front of him.
Such superficiality is the order of the day for the film. Fuqua chats with a variety of American sports luminaries—from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, to WNBA point guard Natasha Cloud, golfer Michelle Wie West, and Olympic fencer Daryl Homer and gymnast Laurie Hernandez—who relay their own thoughts and feelings during the crisis in March. As you might expect, they were all scared, astonished and unsure about the future of their careers and the long-term viability of their fields. Before long, every sports league was shutting down, and Fuqua embellishes clips of news reports and interviews with overlaid graphics about the mounting number of domestic cases and deaths.
Opening and closing montages of famous American sports moments imply that The Day Sports Stood Still wants to be about the enduring importance of athletics—the way they both distract from, and reflect, the “real world,” as well as the way they embody ideas about resilience, determination and triumphing over formidable odds. Those ideas, though, are barely fleshed out by Fuqua’s skin-deep doc, even when it segues from 2020’s chaotic spring to its fiery summer, when the murder of George Floyd (and Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake) sparked heated calls for social-justice change and mass protests around the country. As Paul and company elucidate, NBA players were determined to be at the forefront of that fight. Through negotiations with the league, they wound up foregrounding their political messages—through press conferences, as well as jerseys emblazoned with personally selected slogans—during the resumption of the 2020 season in the quarantined Bubble in Orlando, Florida.
Cellphone videos of players arriving at the Bubble provide an inside peek at this unique arrangement, while a brief interview with the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns about his mother’s fatal battle with COVID-19 (he eventually lost seven relatives to the disease) is an undeniably heartbreaking passage in these proceedings. Yet by and large, The Day Sports Stood Still amounts to a “remember when…”-style affair, guided by athletes who wound up dealing with cabin fever, toilet paper and exercise equipment shortages, and concerns about putting themselves and their loved ones in danger. Their experiences were, unsurprisingly, a lot like everyone else’s in the world, which largely makes them devoid of insight.
Fuqua also recounts the upheaval of postponed games in the NBA, NHL, and WBNA following the shooting of Blake, and the eventual success of the basketball Bubble itself, which led to no new COVID-19 cases and, as evidenced by a montage of jubilant fan-reaction videos, a lot of satisfied viewers. The fact that the ensuing NFL season and ongoing NBA campaign have been less lucky, due in large part to playing games in arenas around the country, is treated as merely a footnote. The director rehashes this period without extrapolating anything meaningful from it, such that the most compelling part of its portrait are its glimpses of Paul’s lavish home.
Paul states that quarantine taught him that he’s happiest when he’s “present” with family and friends, and following a 60-day Bubble stint in which he worked hard to promote social-justice awareness (as well as to win on the court), he’s intensely pleased about reuniting with his wife and kids. That’s a natural reaction for a man who, Fuqua’s film illustrates, did his best to use his platform to speak out on the vital issues of the day. Nonetheless, it also almost puts The Day Sports Stood Still at odds with itself, intimating that—despite the primary role they play in contemporary culture—perhaps professional sports aren’t, in the final tally, quite as crucial as they appear.