Pandemic, social justice issues still loom over new NBA season

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TSD GritGrindGriz columnist Lee Eric Smith.

In a usual NBA season – y’know, like last year around this time – the winter months of December and January are the “dog days” of the season, filled with games that often don’t become meaningful until Spring. That’s when playoff hopefuls and their fanbases are watching the standings, trying to see how that unexpected December loss to an awful team will impact their chances.

Of course, last year’s “usual” season became the most unique in NBA history. A four-month hiatus, during which George Floyd was killed on camera, sparking a movement that aligned the players and league behind Black Lives Matter. A 22-team “bubble” in Orlando that was nearly derailed by another police shooting in Wisconsin, and the impromptu player protest by the Milwaukee Bucks.

A “play-in” tournament. The NBA Finals in October instead of June. And after a whirlwind draft and free agency period, here we are again at the start of another unprecedented NBA season.

Last season, the Grizzlies prepped to celebrate back-to-back milestones. Last season commemorated the franchise’s 25th anniversary dating back to Vancouver in 1995. This season is the team’s 20th playing in Memphis, and a four-game preseason started Saturday in Minneapolis with back-to-back games against the Timberwolves. (Grizzlies won 107-105.)

Likewise, the Grizz will host the Atlanta Hawks for two games on Dec. 17 and 19. The regular season tips off Dec. 23 against the San Antonio Spurs in front of a COVID-limited crowd at FedExForum.

Here are some storylines to watch – both for the Grizzlies and the NBA.

The elephant in the room

The NBA’s Orlando bubble was a spectacular success, with a few technology flourishes that largely made fans forget that their teams were playing in mostly empty arenas. And, of course, there was nary a case of COVID. I don’t expect the NBA to lower its game when it comes to safety precautions; if anything, the league will continue to rise to the occasion and set the standard.

But . . .

There’s no denying that COVID cases are skyrocketing as the weather gets colder and as the need for human contact collides with get-together holiday season. Teams have already taken a financial beating with their arenas completely closed. They HAVE to have arena revenue to remain viable, in a time when a “packed house” will now mean 4,000 fans scattered across thousands of otherwise empty seats — if they’re allowed in arenas at all.

In Memphis, the Grizzlies have announced their COVID policy updates for FedExForum. Face masks will be required, except when eating and ticketed fans will be seated at least 6 feet apart, and cashless transactions and prepackaged snacks will be the new norm. These are reasonable precautions and if more are needed, I’m sure they’ll come.

But sheer probability suggests that it’s just a matter of time before a player is diagnosed with COVID (I’m not wishing it on anybody, I’m just saying . . . ). That would certainly set off a chain of tests and quarantines that will either mean postponed games or weird lineups as players sit out. It will be interesting to see when NBA players and personnel will receive a COVID vaccine.

The NBA is also thinking of the worst-case scenarios by only announcing the first half of an already shortened 72-game season. That means that despite all of the precautions, the league knows itself that another COVID-shortened season is a distinct possibility.

My advice? If you’re an NBA fan, savor every game.

The Rhinocerous in the room

Never heard of this before, so I’ll take credit for inventing the term. Rarely is there another large and imposing issue in the room, but in this case there is. The “rhinocerous” is the movement for social justice.

Black Lives Matter loomed large in the bubble, with players wearing statements on their jerseys, and the court emblazoned with Black Lives Matter. Largely, the NBA and the Players Union have put forth a unified front, not just paying lip service and publicity, but in efforts to use the league’s influence to effect actual change.

One such effort to watch this season will be the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition. A group of owners, players and coaches will try to build on how the NBA can support voting efforts, empowerment in the black community and more. And in early August, the NBA Board of Governors donated $300 million as an initial contribution the first-ever NBA Foundation charged with creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community.

In Memphis, the Grizzlies offered to make FedExForum a polling station way back in June. That didn’t happen, but FedExForum was indeed where bipartisan poll workers tabulated absentee ballots for the Nov. 2 election. The Grizzlies have a long record of achievement when it comes to community engagement and I don’t expect that to change unless it’s for the better.

But even that brings us back to the elephant. In a usual season, players make appearances at community events, basketball camps and the like. That’s where you get all those cute pics of grinning players and children in face paint. But with a pandemic raging and a vaccine still months away from mass use, it’s hard to imagine the team letting fans get up-close and personal with players, at least for the foreseeable future.

The Grizzlies have been ahead of game in discussing the topic of race, with its MLK holiday events and activities. As it stands now, the annual Martin Luther King Day game against the Phoenix Suns is still set for Jan. 18 at 4 p.m. But there’s no word yet on the symposium, Sports Legacy Awards or other activities. Given that those events have been live-streamed and/or broadcast for years, the events will likely be all virtual this season.

There’s only so much an NBA franchise can or should do when it comes to social justice. I don’t want my NBA team writing legislation. At best, I think the Grizzlies can inspire, facilitate conversations and use its platform to influence change. Given the Grizzlies track record on those things, it’s hard to imagine them doing much more than they are, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

And somewhere under the shadow of an elephant and a rhinocerous, there’s actual basketball to be played. More insight on the actual on-court stuff in my next column!