Jon Elmore scored 20 points in an empty arena in Italy on March 7. He was playing for Orlandina Basket, a team based in Capo d'Orlando, Sicily. After the profoundly strange win, Elmore and his teammates went to the locker room to find out the league had sent a memo: The season would be suspended. Marshall University's all-time leading scorer talked to his pregnant fiancee, who had accompanied him overseas, then to team management. He booked the first flight he could.
Malcolm Hill played his last game of the season for the Astana Tigers on March 8, and the former Illinois star spent the next two weeks in the Kazakh capital waiting for official word that the season was canceled. Jordan Adams' last game was on March 14 in Mazatlan, Mexico, where the No. 22 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft lived for all of two weeks and played just two games before his season was over.
Elmore, Hill and Adams are now holed up in a hotel in Columbus, Ohio, which for the next 10 days will host the 2020 edition of The Basketball Tournament. Weeks before the NBA returns at Disney World, TBT has set up a fanless bubble of its own. The single-elimination, winner-take-all tournament features 24 teams, $1.2 million in prize money and health and safety protocols Elmore described as extreme but necessary.
There have been more than 2.8 million coronavirus cases in the United States. On Thursday the country reported more than 55,000 new infections, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began, and the death toll reached almost 130,000. It is in this context that TBT is trying to create a safe environment for the 300-plus players participating. Every one of them was required to test negative for COVID-19 before going to Columbus.
Adams was among the first to arrive. Before entering the hotel last Sunday, he had a temperature check and picked up a hygiene kit. After putting on a mask and gloves, he passed through security, took a COVID-19 test and went to his room, where he had to quarantine until the results came in the next day.
Every player goes through the same process. For Elmore, the saliva-based test was a relief. His team, Herd That, had nasal swab tests in West Virginia as part of its 11-day, pre-TBT training camp.
"Here, thankfully, you don't have to get your brain scratched by the swab," Elmore said.
In quarantine, Hill passed the time on YouTube, reading and watching old basketball games. Adams played video games, FaceTimed his wife and texted with the teammates he was barred from greeting in person. It was "total lockdown," Elmore said, and after the initial quarantine period most rules remained.
"Mask, everywhere we go," Hill said. "We hand sanitize everywhere. We have tissue for whenever we press the elevator button. We can't leave the hotel."
There are strict rules for taking the elevator: No more than four people at a time, only ride with your teammates, no talking.
Players cannot mingle with other teams. "Socializing is as limited as you can imagine," Elmore said, and each team must be in isolation for at least five days before their first game. When competition begins on Saturday, there will only be 55 people at Nationwide Arena, including players, coaches, TBT staffers and the production team responsible for airing the tournament in 197 countries. The arena is a block away from the hotel.
Already, however, there have been complications. Herd That's original Sunday opponent, Best Virginia (a team of WVU alums), was removed from the tournament when one of its players tested positive for COVID-19. On Wednesday, two more teams suffered the same fate. TBT had four replacement teams ready to go, and, after the team that replaced Best Virginia had to withdraw on Friday, there are none left.
One way of looking at this is that there is significant risk involved, despite all the precautions. Another is that the system is working, as TBT is catching the positive tests and preventing an outbreak inside the bubble.
"When I see people that test positive I kind of just tell myself, OK, make sure you stay responsible, stay consistent with what you're doing and what they're telling you," Hill said. "Because you're not untouchable, clearly."
Hill isn't scared, though. He believes he'll be fine if he follows the rules. All three players raved about the way TBT is handling player safety. No one wants to be the reason his team is sent home.
"Everybody's on edge every test you take because one bad result and everybody's eliminated," Elmore said. "And everything we've worked for and all the money that's been put into it goes out the window."
"That's the scary part," Adams said.
Every day, each team has a two-hour time slot at the practice court set up at the adjoining conference center. According to Adams, a member of Team Heartfire, he and his teammates don't want to stop when their two hours are up. They didn't have the luxury of an extended training camp, and they've missed playing 5-on-5 with professionals.
"I can't lie, it feels awesome," Adams said. "'It just feels like you're back in basketball season now."
Outside of those two hours a day, "you're pretty much in your room or in the team room just killing time," Elmore said. Each team has a suite where players can congregate. He has been playing a lot of "Call of Duty: Warzone."
"You are locked in the hotel; if a team wants to have a quick little pop-up meeting, nobody's really got anything going on or anything taking away from their time," Elmore said.
Mostly, though, the team suite is there for players to "hang out, sit down, watch film, play video games, play cards -- where I've been dominating, by the way, but whatever," Elmore said. As much as he is savoring being back back on the court, Hill said he's had "a lot more fun outside of basketball" with his House of 'Paign teammates, reminiscing about college, catching up and "talking about life, how we can be better as human beings."
Adams had to walk out of the team suite when I called "because all the guys are in there playing cards, playing 2K, telling their overseas stories, relaxing," he said. They'd just debated the relative merits of the 2006 and 2007 NBA Draft classes. Life in the bubble is "challenging," he said, "but we're all athletes, so we have to adapt to challenges."
For Elmore, this is a family affair. He grew up playing basketball with his brother, Ot, and their father, Gay, coached them in AAU. The brothers played together at South Charleston High School for two years, and again for two years at Marshall. They've reunited with Herd That, and Gay is coaching the team. Elmore thinks that, in this environment, teams that are close will have an advantage.
Hill said he hasn't been bored. "It sounds crazy to some people," he said, but tearing his ACL 20 months ago was "the greatest blessing that ever happened to me" because it forced him to look for happiness away from the court. He loves self-help books, and recommends David Deida's The Way of the Superior Man and Gregg Braden's The Science of Self-Empowerment.
After returning from Kazakhstan in March, Hill went vegan for a month because he "wanted to make myself as uncomfortable as possible." He has dropped 30 pounds since his last professional game. He called the TBT-provided meals left outside his room "delicious," but "not as good as my mom's cooking." Like the rest of us, he loses track of time in isolation -- he said he thinks he's been in Columbus for four days, but has been "so lost in the moment" that he isn't exactly sure.
"I've enjoyed myself here, honestly," Hill said. "Do I wish I could go outside? Yeah, but I don't focus on the negative. 'Cause it's pointless. I don't focus on things that I don't have or can't do. I focus on what I can do and how can I make the most out of this situation and have fun with it."
One fun fact: The players know there will be more eyes on them than in the six previous iterations of the tournament. Sports-starved fans can watch almost every game on ESPN (and the others on ESPN2).
"Everybody's locked in and excited for that because there's nothing, sports-wise, really on," Elmore said. "Besides, I guess, Korean baseball. But other than that, basketball-wise, this is it."
Those new to the TBT will recognize the Elam Ending, in which teams play to a target score, from this year's NBA All-Star Game. When the target score is close, "that basketball is turnt up," Adams said, based on his prior experience in TBT.
First-time viewers might also be surprised at the talent level. Joe Johnson, the seven-time NBA All-Star and reigning BIG3 MVP, is suiting up next to veteran point guard Jarrett Jack with Overseas Elite.
"On each team," Elmore said, "you're talking about guys that have been college basketball legends, you're talking about guys that are overseas legends that have had great professional careers and you're talking about guys that have had good NBA careers."
Elmore said Herd That considers this a business trip. He hopes he'll never again have to jump through all these hoops just to play, but "as soon as we get on the court, a different animal is brought out." The only normal part of this is the basketball, and the rest of it has made the team more focused.
"The big thing that we talked about with our team was just the goal," Elmore said. "What are we doing it for? One, you get a chance to play live basketball on national television again. Two, there's [$1.2 million] on the line. So, we'll sit in our room for as long as you want if you give us a chance to play for that much money on national TV as the first live basketball back."