NBA tweaks rules to suit Covid-19 protocols
Gone is the time sweaty basketball players used to huddle shoulder-to-shoulder around the coach, hanging on to every tweak in strategy bellowed at them before trotting off. Going by what happened in Orlando (Florida) on Thursday, timeouts will not be a tight team affair after all. Just five minutes into the first quarter of the restart of National Basketball Association’s (NBA) 2019-20 season, the New Orleons Pelicans took the first regular timeout of their match against Utah Jazz. Instead of getting into a huddle in front of the team bench, both sets of players sat on special chairs placed by the team staff with the coach sitting in the middle. This was as per the new COVID-19 guidelines announced by the NBA to maintain social distance and avoid usual crowding in front of team benches, which too were rearranged.
So as timeout was called, the Pelicans players congregated around the coach in separate movable chairs kept away from the team benches. “During any timeout or period break, players and coaches can huddle like normal except they must sit in or congregate around movable chairs separate and apart from the team benches. The movable chairs used during timeouts or period breaks will be cleaned and disinfected after each use,” the NBA had announced earlier on Thursday, a few hours ahead of the opening seeding match that the Jazz eventually won 106-104 in a thriller. Similar protocols were followed in the second match of the day in which LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers defeated cross-town rivals LA Clippers 103-101.
The NBA also introduced new elements and enhancements to existing policies and procedures in various areas for the resumption of the 2019-20 season, including a wider border around the sidelines, a revised setup for team benches and a special cloth covering on officials’ whistles. The changes included relaxation in the attire for head coaches and assistant coaches, who were permitted to wear polo shirts instead of business suits. A plexiglass enhancement surrounded the scorers’ table to ensure they are safe from any sweat, spittle or any body fluid flung around as the players clash. Also absent was the usual media scrum close to the court as broadcast camera operators and photographers or videographers were banished to different areas to avoid crowding. The match officials’ whistles had special cloth covering added to prevent the spread of spittle.
Team benches included multiple rows of seats arranged at an appropriate distance from each other. Each bench was divided into three sections—for players, coaches and team staff. The players’ section was spread over 17 seats divided into three rows with each player assigned a seat that can’t be changed for the duration of the match. The 12-seat coaches and team staff section, slightly separated from the players section, was divided into three rows of four seats each.
With no fans in the stands, the NBA decided to widen the boundary lines to make them more prominent. “To assist with perception and visibility on the court and adjust for not having courtside fans to help define the boundaries, the border around the court has been widened to 8 inches from 2 inches. During a throw-in from out of bounds, the thrower-in may continue to step on the line but may not touch the floor over the line until the ball is released,” the NBA said in a release on Thursday.
There were some unassigned seats near the baseline reserved only for temporary use to enable player-to-player, coach-to-player and trainer/physician-to-player communication. The unassigned seats were promptly cleaned and disinfected after every use. The NBA also brought into the arena replay officials, who make decisions on certain replay situations and facilitate on-court review of others, to work on-site at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida rather than at the NBA Replay Centre in Secaucus, New Jersey. The NBA Replay Centre will continue to conduct reviews in conjunction with on-court officials.
These changes have been introduced to adhere to COVID-19 protocols of social distancing and hygiene that were introduced after consultations with the players, coaches, referees and team staff. But since basketball is a full contact sport, protocols of total social distancing could not be adhered to during games. Some eyebrows were raised over new protocols regarding referees’ whistles or team benches as the participants were already in bio-secure bubble and were tested regularly. However, as NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said before the restart, not everything about novel coronavirus is known. The NBA, thus, does not want to take any chance even inside the bio-secure bubble.