The game itself? Pure escape, same as it’s always been. Usually, basketball represents an escape from everyday life, said Novar Gadson, cocaptain of Team Brotherly Love in The Basketball Tournament. Now, a different kind.
“Just the worry of catching the virus,‘' said Gadson, a Bartram High and Rider graduate.
This little endeavor right now in Columbus, Ohio, it’s a basketball tournament for our times. A 24-team field, $1 million on the line, winner takes all. Except the biggest wrinkle this year isn’t the funky but effective Elam Ending, more the coronavirus itself. One positive COVID-19 test on site and a team is eliminated.
“It’s like survival,‘' Gadson said. “We’ve got two battles going at the same time. If one of us is affected, we’re gone.”
Four teams have been knocked out before they ever played a game. Team Brotherly Love’s second-round opponent, which had a first-round bye, wasn’t able to play Monday night. The Philly team, featuring players such as Temple grad Khalif Wyatt, Penn State grad D.J. Newbill, and Drexel grad Samme Givens, won its first game, then advanced by forfeit to Friday’s quarterfinals.
“There’s nothing enjoyable about canceling a game,‘' said Jon Mugar, founder and CEO of TBT, noting that Eberlein Drive, the Team Brotherly Love opponent knocked out, had been one of only two teams that had played each year of TBT, which began in 2014. Pre-virus, the plan was to have 64 teams and nine sites. “We set this plan for a reason. You have to bite the bullet and trust and move on and understand the plan is going to carry on in the end.”
They had four “backup” teams ready to go if players from the main 24 tested positive, and three of those teams ended up playing. But the forfeit this week happened because the fourth backup team also had a player test positive.
They’re hoping that now that players have been in quarantine for over a week, the positive tests are done.
“I think we’re 0-for-160 today,‘' Mugar said Monday in a telephone interview about tests that day coming up negative.
The idea, Mugar said, fit state health guidelines. Understanding that basketball is a contact sport, so each player took a series of coronavirus tests before they even played a game. The first before they traveled to Columbus. Then at least two more before their first game. Then another after their first game.
Also, the rules for quarantining were strict. Nobody leaves their room without a mask.
“Automatic disqualification if your mask isn’t on,‘' Gadson said.
A team is allowed to gather together within the hotel, each group given a designated team room. Being out in the hallway together is all right. Team Brotherly Love has been doing a lot of that. Gadson has been telling players to put on gloves when they go out of their room, “throw your gloves away, get new gloves.”
The testing has gotten a bit old.
“We’ve been here eight days and we’ve been tested every day,‘' Gadson said Monday. “How many negatives do you need?”
Still, the team is now in the quarterfinals, two wins away from playing for the million bucks. There are three practice courts put in at the hotel itself, regular courts. You can get outside food deliveries, but set meal teams are timed pickups within the hotel, bringing the food back to your room.
“The biggest wrinkle is having to be inside the bubble the entire time,‘’ said Temple grad Ramone Moore, the other Team Brotherly Love cocaptain. “Aside from game day, we do everything inside here. Practice, film, meetings, etc.”
Getting air, Moore said, means just standing out in front of the hotel.
“We can’t go off the premises or else we’ll get disqualified,‘' Moore said. “We’ve been here a week so far and it’s been challenging.”
They don’t forget why they’re doing it.
“The overall goal, which is winning a bunch of money, is the main reason we all are willing to sacrifice and get through this,‘' Moore said. “We understand the rules and it’s all for the sake of everyone’s safety.”
Most of the Team Brotherly Love players have known each other for years, which has especially helped this year. The new guys, including Wyatt and Newbill, have fit right in, Gadson said.
“You can’t hear it, but seven of us are in the hallway now, laughing and joking,‘' Gadson said, speaking from his room.
That’s another part of this year’s protocol. Everybody gets his own room.
Like old times, Wyatt had 27 points and his old Temple backcourt mate Moore had 24 as Team Brotherly Love advanced Saturday past a team of Oklahoma State alumni. Friday, they’ll face a Marquette alumni team in a 2 p.m. quarterfinal televised on ESPN. If they keep advancing, the semifinals are on Sunday and the final Tuesday night.
With ESPN showing the games, that’s another bonus, the exposure of a lot of familiar names from their college days, but players who are not seen playing much in this country during their years as overseas professionals. (You watch a group like Team Brotherly Love and you can really put the emphasis on the word professional. These guys know how to play this game.)
As for how this whole quarantining has worked, the NBA might want to look at it.
“We have a lot of data,‘' Mugar said. “I think the data would be useful for anyone in basketball. Our models are so different. They have so many rules within their [NBA] bubble.”
No players presented themselves as symptomatic on site, Mugar said. Still, the tournament doesn’t work, he said, if everyone playing doesn’t feel safe.
“You’re here for two battles,‘' Gadson said.
That first game, he said, made the protocols worth it.