The March 11 contest between the Denver Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks was the most bizarre clash in the history of both franchises — not for anything that happened on the court, but because of a now-familiar combination of five capital letters and two numbers: COVID-19. Millions of people watching the nationally televised match-up across the country learned live that the NBA season has been suspended as a result of the virus, and the impact will be felt by fans and sports haters alike in ways that will go well beyond the timeout taken by America's most prominent professional hoops league.
During the game, which turned out to be the last to take place before the plug was pulled (the NBA nightcap pitting the New Orleans Pelicans against the Sacramento Kings never got under way), a Twitter user going by the name of Adlai STEVENson wrote, "The Nuggets-Mavericks game still playing on ESPN feels like the band on the Titanic." It was an incredibly vivid and apt description, in part because of Denver's many sour notes.
That the Nuggets would be seen on ESPN was a mixed blessing from the jump. On the positive side, the broadcast would allow boosters in the Mile High City to actually tune in the Nugs — a relative rarity of late, given the continuing conflict between its broadcast partner, Altitude TV, and distributors Comcast and DISH, which has resulted in the sports network being unavailable to approximately 80 percent of television consumers for the entire 2019-2020 campaign. On the negative, the not-ready-for-prime-time Nuggets have blinked in the spotlight, losing, often badly, nearly every time ESPN deigned to acknowledge their existence.
Nonetheless, Denver had a lead during the third quarter when the arena-shaking news came down: Members of the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder were under quarantine in OKC after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. After postponing that game, NBA officials chose to make the same move league-wide.
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ESPN cameras captured the moment when Mavs owner Mark Cuban got the news on his phone; he did a double take that would have seemed over the top in a Three Stooges short. At that point, commentators Ryan Ruocco and Doris Burke, supplemented by reporter Tom Rinaldi, essentially stopped paying attention to the action on the court, processing the stunning development live along with viewers.
It was just as well, since the Nuggets did their usual humiliating ESPN fourth-quarter swan dive, eventually losing 113-97. Since it was unclear when the players had learned about the season postponement, their lack of focus seemed less like a reaction to an unprecedented event than business as usual.
Nothing else was normal, especially in my family. Indeed, yesterday was when COVID-19 became something that directly impacted us as opposed to a sad malady affecting other people. In the coming days, my son and his partner were scheduled to take off on a long-planned vacation to Amsterdam; they'd been on the fence about whether to go, but President Donald Trump's thirty-day ban of flights from Europe made up their minds for them, even though it doesn't technically apply to American citizens. Meanwhile, one of my daughters, who had tickets to tonight's Post Malone concert at the Pepsi Center, decided not to attend, since it would be impossible to maintain the recommended spacial distancing in an arena packed with thousands of people. She was also slated to join me, her mom and her sister this weekend to see the Colorado Avalanche take on the Las Vegas Golden Knights, but there's a good chance this skate either won't go on or will do so without an audience; the NHL is expected to make an announcement about such subjects later today.
In the big picture (and the small one), these are extraordinarily minor inconveniences — fun interrupted, as opposed to the disruption and devastation the virus has wreaked on an increasing number of others. But as a confused-looking Nuggets crew stumbled toward the locker room last night, it was obvious that no one is immune from the effects of COVID-19 — and no one knows what's going to happen next.