At least a dozen staffers, family members and associates of the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns tested positive for COVID-19 during the 2021 NBA Finals in July, according to a Rolling Stone story by Matt Sullivan.
Rolling Stone reported that:
- Six of the people who tested positive were team employees, including members of the Bucks' coaching and medical staffs. There were also family members and associates of players, plus Milwaukee's Thanasis Antetokounmpo, who entered health and safety protocols before Game 5.
- Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo's vaccination status was a secret known only to a small braintrust within the Bucks franchise. Giannis said at media day in September that he is vaccinated, but the story implies that this wasn't the case a few months earlier. "We were very concerned that Giannis wasn't vaccinated," said a high-ranking employee just outside the braintrust, adding that they feared he'd test positive or be quarantined because of exposure to the virus. "It hit everybody pretty quickly, but the biggest thing was: Just make sure Giannis tests negative." (Vaccinated players were not required to quarantine because of exposure.)
- Milwaukee did not let player families and associates travel with the team in the first three rounds of the playoffs, but chartered a second plane for this purpose in the Finals. The first two games were in Phoenix, where the Bucks held two family dinners, one indoors at a steakhouse.
- A former Suns team doctor said they "dropped our defenses." Brady Howe, the team's senior director of health and performance, said, "As the games progressed, we saw that some scenarios may have been brewing -- just rumors between the two teams that, you know, there might be some people affected. It felt like teams were still playing it day-by-day, trying to skate by at the skin of our teeth." Howe said, however, that the virus did not spread to players or essential staff. An NBA official traveling with the Bucks said, "Hearing that the Suns also had issues, too, was a little bit scary. It felt like COVID just dropped back out of the sky, came out of nowhere and just tried its best to ruin the Finals."
- The Bucks did not fly a second team plane to Phoenix for Game 5.
- Thanasis was ruled out for Game 5 hours before it began, and he had symptoms. At the same time, an assistant coach, two members of the medical team and a staff on the road had tested positive. A former staffer said that multiple assistant coaches were not on the bench because they were determined to be close contacts.
- After the Bucks' championship parade on July 22, which was two days after they clinched the title in Game 6, several more people connected to the team were infected with COVID-19. "Once we won, everybody forgot there was COVID," the high-ranking Milwaukee official said. "All protocols went out the window."
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The story suggests the NBA dodged a bullet four months ago. A senior Bucks employee is quoted using that exact phrase, adding that the team "didn't know who else was gonna come up positive" after Thanasis did.
The league's position, essentially, is that the system worked. In response to the COVID Delta variant spreading at an alarming rate, it ramped up some of its restrictions.
"Because of a high vaccination rate, the enhancements to our protocols -- including increasing testing frequency, reinstituting face masks at team facilities for all players, and limiting the number of staff who could interact with players -- and the diligence from the Bucks' and Suns' players and staff, we were able to prevent any coronavirus transmission among players and safely complete the Finals," said David Weiss, the NBA's senior vice president of player matters.
"There was no outbreak," Weiss said, adding that the league never considered postponing a Finals game. The NBA official who was traveling with the Bucks, however, said that the team wasn't worried about a potential postponement, but rather the possibility that Giannis would have to join his brother in the health and safety protocols -- and miss the rest of the series. Rolling Stone cited team officials on both sides describing panic, frustration with uncooperative family members and, in the hours before Game 6, "a lot of nervousness" as they waited for test results.