Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni was like everyone else in the NBA whose world was rocked by the abrupt halt to the season on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic. He cycled through emotions of shock, frustration, acceptance, then adjustment to the “new normal” as he prepared for a potential resumption of the season.
“For the most part, I was doing OK,” D’Antoni says, “but these last couple of weeks, I started getting a little more anxious to get back.”
Now D’Antoni finds himself a bit anxious for an entirely different reason. During an interview on TNT last week, NBA commissioner Adam Silver indicated that the league’s older coaches might have to take additional precautions with regard to exposure to the coronavirus.
“I think one of the things we know, we’ve learned a lot about the virus since we shut down in March, and the data is demonstrating that for the most part, and there are exceptions, that [it is] healthy young people that are the least vulnerable,” Silver said on TNT’s “Inside the NBA.” “But there are also people involved in this league, particularly some of the coaches who are obviously older people, and we also know people at any age who have underlying conditions are most vulnerable.
“So we are going to have to work through protocols that maybe, for example, certain coaches may not be able to be the bench coach. They may have to retain social distancing protocols. And maybe they can be in the front of a room, a locker room or a ballroom with a whiteboard. But when it comes to actual play, we’re not going to want them that close to players in order to protect them. So those are all issues that we are continuing to work through.”
In the wake of the immediate backlash from the league’s coaches, Silver walked back those comments, and he texted D’Antoni directly to clarify his position.
D’Antoni, the second-oldest coach in the league at age 69, said he expects to be allowed to perform his full duties once he and his team arrive in Orlando, Florida.
“I guess they were thinking it could affect us a little bit more because of our age,” D’Antoni told ESPN on Wednesday night, “but we would catch it at the same rate as any player would. If it’s not safe for us, then it’s not safe for them.
“I know the NBA is going to make it as safe as possible for everyone involved. But there’s no such thing as zero risk. I’m not worried about it because I don’t think [preventing older coaches from interacting with their players on the bench] will happen.
“I know Adam talked about that on TNT, but since then he’s walked it back pretty quick. I think he got a little ahead of himself.”
Warren LeGarie, an agent who represents both D’Antoni and New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who is 65, said he and Silver exchanged text messages in the aftermath of Silver’s interview. At that time, LeGarie said, the commissioner acknowledged he erred in publicly discussing the potential health risks of the league’s older coaches, which also includes San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (71).
“I told him, ‘Adam, I appreciate you walking this back, but people can’t unhear what you said,'” LeGarie told ESPN. “Mike is a free agent, and this could stigmatize him and others for future coaching opportunities.”
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said he contacted D’Antoni to assure him the team stands with him.
“Mike will be coaching our team,” Morey said. “It would be such a huge disadvantage to lose him. We would never stand for that.
“In fairness to the league, they set up a process whereby everyone will have to submit a medical record. I’m sure the doctors told them that some people over a certain age shouldn’t go. But Mike is in great health. He’s in better shape than some 40-year-old coaches we have. Besides, I think his dad lived to be 108 or something.”
All NBA team personnel are expected to be asked to submit personal medical histories to a panel of physicians who will review the results and make recommendations regarding the risk of serious illness if exposed to the coronavirus in the NBA’s bubble environment in Orlando, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe.
One NBA coach, who asked not to be named, believes the league’s use of an “independent” panel of physicians to review the medical data is its way of distancing the league from the findings.
“If it’s the doctors who say, ‘This coach isn’t healthy enough to be in the bubble,’ then the league can throw up their hands and say, ‘What can we do? We have to listen to our medical experts,'” the coach said. “And that, by the way, could happen to guys who are under 60 with health issues. But I’m telling you right now, they will be looking at a lawsuit if they try it.”
In a statement Thursday night, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, said, “The health and safety of our coaches is first and foremost. It’s entirely possible that an NBA coach in his 60s or 70s could be healthier than someone in their 30s or 40s. The conversation should never be solely about a person’s age. Adam assured me that we would work through this together to help determine what is both safe and fair for all of our coaches.”
D’Antoni said he is aware he will likely have to undergo a medical review, but he reports he is in excellent health.
“I don’t have anything I know of,” he said. “At this age, I’m not sure I want to know. One of the things the coaches were talking about was high blood pressure might be something that could be flagged.
“Well, I don’t know one coach in the NBA who doesn’t have high blood pressure.”