At about 4:30 p.m. local time on Monday, Rudy Gobert checked out of the 21c Museum Hotel, located west of the downtown city of Oklahoma, and boarded a bus for the seven blocks to Chesapeake Power Arena.
Nine and a half months ago Gobert left the same hotel and got into a car, which took him about 20 blocks from the University of Oklahoma Medical Center to be tested for VIDOC-19. It seemed ridiculous that Gobert could actually have a coronavirus, but after a negative test for stripes and flu, he took a nasal smear. Less than 24 hours later, just 10 minutes before the start of the game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz on the 11th. In March, the virus spread and caused a series of events that changed the NBA forever… and the sports world as a whole.
On Monday, Gobert took a long walk down the corridor to a dressing room he had never seen before in March, a dressing room where his teammates were locked up for hours with strangers and fears spinning around them as they sat in a circle, wearing blue surgical gloves and masks, waiting for the medical staff to check their condition.
I went to my office and remembered I was spending some time there, said jazz coach Quin Snyder on Monday with a smile. I don’t call it PTSD because it’s not that extreme, but there are definitely flashbacks.
Monday’s competition was a complete cycle for Gobert and Jazz, with the inevitable flood of memories, even though they didn’t want this to be the center of the evening. According to Snyder they didn’t spend much time on it, but the memories came in the form of little things, like staying in the same hotel or going to the dressing room or going on the field without a fan.
I had the same [hotel] room, believe it or not, Donovan Mitchell said. Which is ironic.
The Jazz won the race 110-109, with Mitchell in the running position with seven seconds left to lead them. Thunder had a chance to win the race when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drove to the right, but he was greeted by Gobert’s imposing presence and the deflection of his albatross gunshot. Gilgees-Alexander took care of it, Gobert grabbed the rebound, and the buzzer sounded with the ball in his hands.
It’s just basketball. I was just focused on winning, Gobert said. The only [big] problem is that I go back to the same hotel with all the memories. It was a little weird.
Gobert’s life changed in March, a few days after he had touched journalists on the table in front of him, when he revealed new league protocols to separate players from the media in order to protect himself from the spread of the virus. He’s become a patient zero in the NBA, and that shows in his lack of seriousness. He took responsibility and apologized. He fought the virus for two weeks and suffered serious symptoms, including a month-long inability to taste or smell.
Rudy was slandered, and in hindsight we have a better understanding of the virus, Snyder said. I think Rudy is fully aware that mistakes have been made, and that these mistakes have been made over and over again by different people, by all of us.
It was so important then, and in Rudy’s case he was lucky to get away with it. We always question ourselves when we are facing challenges to improve ourselves, and I think Rudy has come out of it with a place to grow. Not just for Rudy, but for all of us.
A lot has changed since March – the people, the places, the things.
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Wednesday 6 January
– The Celtics in the Heat, 19.30 on ESPN
– The Clippers in the Heat, 22 hours on ESPN.
Friday the 8th. January
– Hornets in Pelicans, 19:30 on ESPN
– Clippers in the war, 22 hours on ESPN.
All the time in the East.
It’s the same year. It’s the same year of all this, Mitchell said. It seemed like an eternity, but I don’t think we thought about it too much. We had a moment when we got here and it was like everything was fine, we’re back.
The March contest also marked a turning point in the relationship between Gobert and Mitchell, as tensions over the transmission of the virus increased after Mitchell tested positive the next day. All the chemistry in the dressing room of the Jazzer was questioned and many wondered openly if there was anything to give. Will jazz trade one of its stars? Can they handle it?
Mitchell admitted it took him a while to calm down, and they didn’t talk for a long time. When the NBA regained control of the Florida Bubble, Gobert and Mitchell were forced to intervene and repair the breach. They reorganised themselves and had a common goal as a uniform: victory.
Monday’s match was suitable for many reasons, but Mitchell threw the ball forward and Gobert produced the winning save of the game, the formula the Jazz had hoped for. Snyder talked about the team’s growth that night in March, but it goes beyond a basketball win almost ten months later.
I think we all appreciate what we think a normal life is, said the coach. It’s impossible not to forget that night, it was a memorable night for both teams, even for the league. But also the contrast between that moment and the current situation, the season, the break, the return of the bubble and playing again – it feels like a whole life has passed since then.