The article has been updated to correct the location of where Josh Harris would normally sit. An earlier version of this story said he would usually be sitting in the empty seats referenced, rather than next to them.
All around the two empty seats, the commerce flowed. Drinkers and servers. Announcers and listeners. Players and coaches and mascots and staff and fans who’d paid good money to watch them. Capital and labor. Product and customer.
Elsewhere in the country, a pandemic raged: a thousand diagnosed cases, a curve just beginning, a President preparing to address the nation. But here, in a 20,000 seat arena, the economy marched on.
As the Sixers and the Pistons took the court for the second half, a game in Oklahoma City was called. A player had tested positive. The locker rooms were sealed. They were midway through the fourth when the international travel ban was announced. The home team was up by 20. By the sound of the final buzzer, the rest of the season was on hiatus. The Sixers had picked up their 39th win.
How many were on hand? Security guards and concessionaires and scoreboard operators. Referees and dancers and T-shirt gun-firers. All had been told that the show would go on. That it could. That it must. And so they did as they’d been told, as had been decreed, which is the way things work in the land where the markets are free.
They picked up their clipboards, and stripped off their warm ups, and positioned their rear ends in their seats. All of them were there: high rollers, blue collars, All-Stars and scrubs. All except for those two empty chairs next to the Sixers bench, right next to where the boss would typically sit. On this particular night, Josh Harris was nowhere in sight. It seems the team’s owner had other places to be.
How much was it worth? One final game? Twenty-thousand tickets, $100 a head — that would mean $2 million in revenue for a man worth multiple-billions. The Sixers would tell you such math is overly simplistic. And in fairness to the organization, it was faced with an unprecedented, complex business decision. The science and the medicine said the call was easy. Close the doors. Seal the gates. Flatten the curve by all means possible. Yet, experts and doctors do not sign hourly checks. They do not replace lost wages.
Years from now, when the story of the 2020 pandemic is distilled and retold, it will be framed as an inevitable crash between the two animating forces of western civilization. Society and economy, self-determination and profit. A house can only have one foundation. We are in one of those moments when we decide what will be ours.
If a basketball game is a microcosm, Wednesday night’s was foreboding. From a business perspective, the Sixers did what needed to be done. They consulted the experts, the politicians, the higher powers within the league. They looked at the relevant curves, and weighed the reward and the risk, and they arrived at the decision that made the most fiscal sense. They justified it the way all the business people do, in trickle-down terms that emphasize the well-being of their payroll dependents. A lost game means a lost game check in a world where most live week-to-week.
“Consistent with the recommendation of the NBA,” the team said in a statement, “tonight’s game vs. the Detroit Pistons will proceed as scheduled.”
It may have been a difficult decision. But, by the end of the night, it was abundantly clear that the Sixers had arrived at the incorrect one. Before the game had even begun, the NBA had apparently arrived at the conclusion, that it could not ignore the warnings of those who know better and ask that tens of thousands of people gather together within the same building. Before the game had even begun, municipalities across the country were enacting bans on events a fraction of that size. Before the game had even begun, another NBA team had decided to close its gates.
Yet, the game went on as scheduled. While the Sixers’ micro-economy is a couple of million more liquid, it’s a laughably small amount compared to what lies ahead, and an insult to the uncertain fiscal futures facing the wage-earners that serve as their foundation. It’s easy to blame the billionaires in moments like this, but maybe that is because the billionaires make it so easy for them to blame. See, there’s nothing in the state of nature that says that contract is king, that a societal-wide burden should be a game of musical chairs.
Josh Harris’ billions came from somewhere, and it wasn’t from the labor of his own two hands. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be entitled to his fair share of profits. But isn’t it fair to think that some of those profits could be siphoned off when his tap momentarily runs dry? That paying out a couple of million in unearned wages might serve a greater societal good than insisting his workers report for their final day in the Coliseum?
With any luck, this will all prove to be much ado about nothing. There will have been no patient-zero at the Wells Fargo Center. All the precautions will have worked: the warnings and the rubber gloves and the preprepared salads. We will all go about our business and await what comes next. Nobody who watched the Sixers win will watch their grandmother die.