An N.B.A. outbreak in January swept up the Washington Wizards, sending one player scrambling to the pharmacy and another off to a hotel for 11 days of video gaming to protect his pregnant wife.
Five teammates had already tested positive for the coronavirus in the 48 hours before Ish Smith, a reserve for the Washington Wizards, heard from Dr. Daniel Medina, the team’s chief of athlete care and performance, on Jan. 14. Dr. Medina told Smith that his most recent test was inconclusive and was undergoing additional analysis.
Smith considered the circumstances — his teammates’ positive tests, a season interrupted — and anticipated the worst. He made an emergency run to a nearby pharmacy.
“When you get an inconclusive, you’re thinking, ‘That might not be too good,’” Smith said. “I was taking NyQuil, DayQuil — and not even needing it. I just wanted to prevent any symptoms from going from 0 to 100.”
Smith soon received confirmation that he had the coronavirus, becoming the sixth of seven Wizards players who would test positive over a four-day stretch of mid-January, an outbreak that forced the team to pause its season for nearly two weeks.
With the team locked down, the sole nexus of communal activity was the parking lot at the practice facility in Southeast Washington — specifically, the cul-de-sac where about 50 members of the organization reported for daily drive-through testing.
“That was the highlight of my day,” said Davis Bertans, a forward from Latvia who spent 11 days holed up at a Residence Inn because he did not want to infect his wife, Anna, who was pregnant, or their 2-year-old daughter, Mila. “My parents have stories about the Soviet Union. I’m going to have stories for my kids about Covid.”
The team’s outbreak, which helped spur the N.B.A. to tighten restrictions on players’ social activities, came amid a surge of cases for the league and underscored the fragile dynamics of the 2020-21 season. Even as the numbers of cases and postponements have dipped dramatically — the league has reported two new cases since Jan. 20, a sharp reduction from the 27 reported over the prior two weeks — teams continue to crisscross a country gripped by a pandemic.
The N.H.L. is now coping with similar challenges. The Devils on Monday announced that 19 players were absent from the team because they had entered the league’s coronavirus protocols.
In a series of interviews, several members of the Wizards organization shared their firsthand view of how quickly things can come unglued.
“Every team has a game plan for it,” Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said, “but every game plan involves a great deal of hope. Hope is not a strategy.”
It is often difficult to be certain how or when or where players become infected, but the Wizards point to circumstantial evidence: The virus appeared to be swirling around them. Before members of their team began testing positive, they had six games in five cities and faced four opponents — the Nets, the 76ers, the Celtics and the Heat — whose players would soon test positive for the virus or realize they had been exposed to it.
Scott Brooks, the team’s coach, said he could sense trouble.
“You’re in a movie, and you’re waiting for something bad to happen,” he said. “And you don’t know when it’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to happen.”
Foreshadowing came in the form of a phone call from the league office on Jan. 9, about an hour before the Wizards were to play the Heat. Bradley Beal had to be removed from the Wizards’ lineup because of contact tracing. He had defended and shared a postgame hug with the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum the previous night, and Tatum had tested positive.
It was about to get worse for the Wizards. Less than two minutes into their game against the Heat, Thomas Bryant, their starting center, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Two days later, with Beal back in the lineup, the Wizards crushed the Phoenix Suns.
Brooks thought the win could be galvanizing for his team, which had gotten off to a poor start. The problem was that the Wizards would not play again for 13 days.
Isolation: ‘We should’ve been playing.’
It was a rapid descent into pandemic purgatory for the Wizards, who began canceling practices on Jan. 12 after their first two positive cases.
Two days later, Dr. Medina called Bertans to tell him that he, too, had tested positive. After Bertans’s wife tested negative, he packed in a hurry — making sure to include his Xbox and a gaming laptop — and left for a nearby hotel.
“I think I played 10 to 12 hours of video games a day,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I would be able to qualify for some sort of ‘FIFA’ world championship.”
For the Wizards, it was a surreal period of boredom and anxiety, impatience and alarm.
“I used to joke that the one day players never pick up the phone is trade deadline day,” Sheppard said. “But now you don’t want to call them too early in the morning because they’ll think, ‘Oh, no, I must have Covid.’ So you have to text them: ‘You do not have Covid. Pick up the phone. I need to talk to you.’”
Team officials advised those who had tested positive to avoid physical activity, citing research that it could worsen symptoms. For the players who continued to test negative, the coaches organized virtual workouts: ball-handling and conditioning drills via video conference calls. “Because that’s all we could do,” Brooks said.
Players who had the coronavirus were tested once a day, in the morning, while everyone else was tested twice a day. Stephen Korda, the team chef, and his staff prepared meals that were loaded into the players’ vehicles when they pulled up to the practice facility.
Sheppard and his family assembled care packages — baskets with vitamins and snacks — and dropped them off at the players’ homes. Brooks called and texted them.
“Sometimes we want to treat these guys like they’re machines,” Brooks said. “No, they’re human.”
On top of everything else, the city was reeling in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol while girding itself for President Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. More than 25,000 members of the National Guard had been deployed, producing a heightened sense of unease — and traffic issues for those living downtown.
Bryant, the center who had blown out his knee, lived in a neighborhood that was heavily barricaded. Despite his injury, he still needed to make his way to the practice facility for testing every day. Sheppard had a staff member who lived nearby scoop him up.
“And they’d drive off before anyone could stop them,” Sheppard said. “It was like they were robbing a bank.”
A drive to the facility that would normally take Brooks about 15 minutes was now sometimes taking him nearly two hours — a minor inconvenience given the circumstances, he said, except for one night when nearly everyone in the organization seemed to arrive at the same time. Cars circled the block.
“And I’m thinking, ‘I need to use a restroom,’” he said.
Yet testing was a strange reprieve, a break from the collective monotony of their lives. Brooks would honk and wave at players from his car. Smith would take the “long route” from his home in Alexandria, Va., where he was heeding the team’s advice to take it easy.
Smith and Bertans said their symptoms were mild, though Bertans lost his sense of smell.
“I have no clue how bad my hotel room must have smelled,” he said.
In other ways, the experience felt familiar: Having been through a pair of knee surgeries, Bertans knew how to cope without basketball, and he’s used to being away from his family because of N.B.A. road trips.
“My daughter thought I was at the gym the whole time,” he said.
At night, Brooks would watch other teams play on TV.
“I don’t know if it was jealousy or envy,” he said, “but it was depressing because we should’ve been playing.”
Recovery: ‘We needed a therapy session.’
Brooks said he spent most of Jan. 20 waiting for word from the league that the Wizards could return to practice. At around 5 p.m., aware of the issues he could have getting to the facility in time for a workout that was tentatively scheduled for 7:30 p.m., he hopped in his car and hoped for the best. He got the good news at 6 p.m.
“We didn’t need a practice,” Brooks said. “We needed a therapy session.”
He told his players how grateful he was to be with them, he said, then looked around and laughed. He had eight functional players, including two on two-way contracts with the Wizards’ G League affiliate, plus Russell Westbrook, who was limited because of an injury. Several others, including Bertans and Smith, remained out.
For 45 minutes, the Wizards’ skeleton crew did some shooting and jogging. As Brooks made his way to a post-practice call with reporters, it occurred to him that he needed to pack that night. The Wizards were scheduled to leave for Milwaukee the next day for a game against the Bucks on Jan. 22. It seemed incomprehensible.
“There was just no way,” Brooks said.
Westbrook and Beal got on the phone with Michele Roberts, the executive director of the players’ union, while Sheppard called the league, which intervened and called off the game — the Wizards’ sixth straight postponement.
On Jan. 21 and 22, the Wizards practiced with eight players — and Raul Neto, a backup guard, strained his groin. (“Even when we were getting healthy, we got hurt,” Sheppard said.) On Jan. 23, Sheppard signed centers Alex Len and Jordan Bell. On Jan. 24, Washington played its first game in 13 days, a 121-101 loss to the Spurs in San Antonio. It was the first of three losses in four days, all of them on the road.
“I knew we were going to be put in a tough position where running out of gas would be a possibility,” Brooks said.
Bertans had finally been freed from isolation while his teammates were gone, returning home to his wife and daughter. His first practice was an ordeal — “I could definitely tell that I hadn’t done anything for almost two weeks,” he said — and then he missed all seven of his shots in a 16-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 29.
“The feel for the game was the biggest struggle,” he said.
Smith was having his own problems. The league uses something called cycle threshold, a measure of the amount of virus in the body, to help determine whether a player can be cleared to return. Generally, that number needs to be at least 30, with higher numbers implying less of the virus. A week after first testing positive, Smith was registering cycle threshold values of only 28, he said.
Smith would run up the stairs of his home to gauge his fitness.
“Everybody is different, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a situation where I couldn’t breathe,” Smith said.
His teammates and coaches were rooting for him from afar.
“It reminded me of the Winter Olympics,” Sheppard said. “Americans don’t know anything about these sports, but within two days we’re all experts. It was the same thing with Ish: ‘Come on, Ish! You’ve got to get above 30!’”
Smith knew he was fortunate, he said. He had medical supervision. He was undergoing daily testing. His symptoms were never serious. He thought of his siblings, who are teachers, and countless others living through the pandemic without that type of support.
“I’ve got no complaints,” he said. “You just have to pick it up and keep it moving.”
Smith returned on Jan. 31, scoring 13 points in a dramatic win over the Nets. Brooks celebrated with a can of White Claw.
The Wizards have had more lows than highs, going 3-8 since their patchwork season resumed. Practice time has come at a premium. There is no playbook for a pandemic, Brooks said, and he can only hope that his players have endured the worst of it, and that they can build some chemistry. But there are no guarantees, not this season.