Why NBA players are in position to lead COVID-19 relief efforts

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — More than 915,000 people have watched Kevin Love, a five-time All-Star and an NBA champion, speak earnestly about the uncertainty Americans face with COVID-19 transforming their lives.

“What’s up everybody? It’s Kevin Love here, just checking in. I know that we’re going through some tough times … ”

He filmed the message in a few takes — the first couple of tries were longer than five minutes — from his dining room table, an American flag painted on distressed wood directly behind him.

Eventually, he got it trimmed to less than three minutes, emphasizing three things. Be kind. Help if you can. Stay resilient.

“Our actions and our words speak volumes at this time,” Love said.

Love started his charitable efforts by donating $100,000 to workers at his home arena in Cleveland within a day after the NBA season was suspended indefinitely March 11. Now it was this — a message directed at basketball fans all over the globe.

Public service announcements from the NBA have been seen more than 49 million times. Ten players, including Love, have pledged financial support for arena workers. Teams and players have donated more than $38 million and nearly 1.5 million meals.

Love’s video went up March 17, and by then the league was already well into a coordinated plan to become an active member of public health discourse, tapping into a part of the NBA that’s different than other major pro sports leagues.

“They’re not only happy that we’re able to be more than just athletes and able to talk about these kind of things, but they’re a driving force,” Love said of the NBA in a phone interview Saturday. “They want us to be that. That’s what helps make our league powerful.”

The NBA has been active in the fight against COVID-19 since it was announced that Utah’s Ruby Gobert tested positive, working to spread messages of hygiene, social distancing and mental well-being while their gyms and arenas are dark.

“Once we ended suspending the season, we just pivoted right away to what we could do to help,” said Kathy Behrens, NBA president of social responsibility and player programs. “… We’re trying to put as much of what we’re doing … directly focused on this issue right now.”

The NBA wasn’t caught by surprise by the COVID-19 outbreak. With two league offices in China, employees had been working from home as early as late December, Behrens said. At least seven NBA players — past and present — recorded PSAs for China and Wuhan, the original epicenter of the novel coronavirus.

One night after the league suspended its season, “Inside the NBA” — the beloved and irreverent pregame and postgame show on TNT — didn’t have to strain to turn its show into a public health forum, with Dr. Sanjay Gupta fielding questions from Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal like he was an All-Star guard instead of a neurosurgeon.

The NBA had stars instruct fans on the importance of hand-washing before shifting the messaging to self-distancing, generosity and social well-being. Thirteen current players — Love, Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jayson Tatum, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Dwight Powell, Pau Gasol, Jamal Murray, Al Horford and Tacko Fall — have video messages at the bottom of a coronavirus fact sheet on the NBA’s web page (the top link on NBA.com). At least six others have participated in PSAs.

Player involvement in the community isn’t new. The league formed NBA Cares in 2005 with the goal of generating 1 million hours of community service. NBA players are contractually required to participate in a minimum amount of community events each season.

While some of those appearances require more nudging than others, Behrens said the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been organic.

“It’s super gratifying. But honestly, it’s not surprising. We’ve been hearing from guys who are like, ‘What do you want me to do?’ ‘What can I do?’ ” Behrens said. “… I’m not calling Joel Embiid and telling him that he should be giving $500,000 to support your community. These guys understand the obligation and the responsibility that they have.”

Behrens said Love, Young and Stephen Curry were among those to respond. She also praised Mitchell, who like Gobert tested positive for the virus. Mitchell appeared on “Good Morning America” to talk about his experience being asymptomatic.

“He was unbelievable,” Behrens said. “That first weekend, he kept raising his hand.”

Curry, a two-time MVP, hosted one of the clearest, clutter-free discussions about COVID-19 with Dr. Anthony Fauci on Instagram — an event that even had former president Barack Obama as a commenter.

This isn’t the first time the NBA has been thrust into the middle of a major public health issue and decisively led the global conversation. On Nov. 7, 1991, NBA Commissioner David Stern sat to Magic Johnson’s left when the Lakers star announced he had contracted HIV. And it was Stern who fought push-back from around the league to include Johnson in that season’s All-Star Game.

Johnson praised Stern, who died in January, and the NBA during a memorial for dispelling myths about HIV/AIDS while increasing awareness. Behrens also eulogized her former boss that day, and now, she can’t help but see similarities in the NBA’s mission.

“David always talked about what that platform could mean, that it could literally save lives beyond Magic’s. That’s always been who we are. And (current Commissioner Adam Silver), he’s been all over me making sure we’re getting all these PSAs out there, that we’re using our global message, that we’re creating these ways for people to be engaged.

“… It’s a playbook we’ve used before, unfortunately.”

And it’s become a part of the league’s lifeblood.

In 2018, Love wrote a first-person story for “The Players Tribune” about his battles with anxiety, becoming an advocate for mental health awareness in and out of the NBA. Hearing a player talk about things other than basketball? It’s a part of NBA life, whether it’s mental illness, the league’s relationship with China, gun violence or criminal justice reforms.

“We all feel some of that anxiety and stress and the unknown — at least that’s what really works me up and is really scary,” Love said of dealing with COVID-19. “Day to day with this thing, turning on the news and seeing the new reports and the numbers … it’s a really odd time to navigate things. But the community aspect, helping others and random acts of kindness — if you’re able to do it, it absolutely is what makes me and a lot of people feel better.

“It’s a common enemy. It’s a sense of being united. Nothing unites us like a common enemy. I feel, selfishly, helping, it’s a way of therapy for me.”


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