Rudy Gobert was dragged through the mud after becoming the first player to test positive for the novel coronavirus. Two days prior, the Utah Jazz center and two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year had touched the mics on the podium to make light of the ensuing pandemic — the type of irony that even movies can’t come up with. The Frenchman was the target of insults, jokes, and later blame once his teammate Donovan Mitchell tested positive hours after his diagnosis.
But was this a blessing in disguise?
The NBA took swift action, postponing the season only minutes after learning of Gobert’s result, becoming the first major North American professional sports league to put a halt to operations.
The next day, March 12, most other major sports followed suit — a day that is now known as “the day sports stopped.”
. . .
Recently, experts pointed to a Feb. 19 UEFA Champions League soccer game between Atalanta of Italy’s Serie A and Valencia of Spain’s La Liga as the “Game Zero” that started the contagion in the Bergamo region of Italy.
Valencia traveled to San Siro, the legendary stadium of Italian powerhouse AC Milan, for this Champions League match. Atalanta’s 4-1 “home” win against Valencia was dubbed the biggest win in the club’s history, but it came with some serious baggage:
“We were mid-February so we didn’t have the circumstances of what was happening,” Bergamo mayor Giorgio Gori said during a live Facebook chat with the Foreign Press Association in Rome, according to The Associated Press. “If it’s true what they’re saying that the virus was already circulating in Europe in January, then it’s very probable that 40,000 Bergamaschi in the stands of San Siro, all together, exchanged the virus between them. As is possible that so many Bergamaschi that night got together in houses, bars to watch the match and did the same.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t have known. No one knew the virus was already here,” the mayor added. “It was inevitable.”
That Feb. 19 game was only two days before the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in Bergamo.
Coincidence? Not exactly:
“I’m sure that 40,000 people hugging and kissing each other while standing a centimeter apart — four times, because Atalanta scored four goals — was definitely a huge accelerator for contagion,” said Luca Lorini, the head of the intensive care unit at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo.
. . .
Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell were the only ones who tested positive out of 58 Jazz personnel who were tested for the coronavirus. The Frenchman was slated to sit out and wasn’t even with the team that Wednesday, March. 11, but Mitchell was suited up and ready to tip-off against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Upon testing, none of the Thunder players contracted the virus. Had Mitchell taken part in that game, though, there’s no telling how many would have contracted it.
That Feb. 19 “Game Zero” not only brought Italy to its knees, but 35% of Valencia’s team became infected as well. Italy and Spain are the two European countries that have been affected by the virus the most.
Eight NBA teams have been tested in full. More than 10 NBA players have already tested positive for COVID-19, including Gobert, Mitchell, Christian Wood, Kevin Durant, Marcus Smart, and others who remain anonymous.
Yet the potential of spreading the virus exponentially was there, and it was Gobert’s test that sent immediate red flags to the league.
Commissioner Adam Silver was quick to put a halt to the 2019-20 NBA season and many other sports (some even begrudgingly) followed his lead, agreeing that the health of their athletes and fans should come before any financial interest.
The league dodged a bullet and a big one at that. That March 11 game between the Jazz and Thunder could have been the NBA’s “Game Zero,” but the league acted quickly and assertively.
Rudy Gobert was demonized for his actions and he rightfully took his due share of harsh criticism for not taking this virus seriously, but his test likely saved many NBA players from dealing with this deadly pandemic — and we’re all better for it.