SALT LAKE CITY — Last Monday, Georges Niang walked into the Zions Bank Basketball Campus for the first time in two months wearing some new “crispy Jazz gear."
It was like the first day of school, he said — new clothes, renewed excitement. But that might be where the metaphor ends. This wasn’t a grand reunion like first days back usually are. And even the place felt a little strange.
The practice facility is like a second home to the players. It’s where they spend countless hours practicing, eating and even relaxing. It’s a place that’s protected enough that they can drop their guard a bit; a place where they don’t always have to be "on."
“The way I looked at it before was kind of like a safe haven, you know; you could act the way you wanted to, you could talk the way you wanted to,” Niang said. “It was just a place where you know you could be carefree and be yourself, nobody was really watching and cameras weren't really on you.”
It didn’t quite feel that way this week as he was practically followed around by someone in full personal protective equipment (PPE) and a spray bottle making sure everything he touched was sanitized.
“It's tough,” he said. “Now you don't feel as safe when you look across and your trainer is wearing a mask and gloves and you have a mask on. And you're constantly having to sanitize and do different things. It was tough the first day because it's like this wasn't what I was used to.”
It was strange, yes, but it was still good to be back lifting weights and to be shooting a ball on a professional-standard hoop. And by Friday, even the weirdness of the new protocols was starting to wear off.
“You kind of are just happy to get in a place that has gym equipment and a basketball hoop,” Niang said. “Better than my guest bedroom that had 25-pound dumbbells and a stationary bike.”
Niang wouldn’t say which teammates he has seen at the facility — the Jazz announced a “handful” of players took part in individual workouts beginning Monday. Regardless of who was there, he can’t practice with them anyway. Due to NBA rules, no team practices are allowed; only four players can be in the facility at the same time and individuals have to remain at least 12 feet apart.
“So there's only so much you can do,” Niang said. “When it's with the ball, it's on the move, getting passes — which is easy for me because when you just stand in the corner and shoot, you know, I mean I can get pretty much my regular workout in.”
How is the shot?
“Let me tell you this, the person that's rebounding for me probably lost about 17 pounds chasing down rebounds in the first week,” Niang joked. “I wouldn't say it was an adjustment, to be honest with you, I'm a firm believer, and your jump shot is the last thing to go.”
Niang was shooting 41.6% from 3-point range on 3.2 attempts per game when the season was indefinitely suspended March 11.
“Obviously, you get in there and the first shot is like you thought you threw your back out but then once you get warmed up and moving around, everything seems to get back to normal,” Niang said. “As a basketball player, it's an amazing feeling to just get back in a facility with a normal hoop and not have to shoot outside.”
It’s the first step to feeling like normal life could resume again. Niang was honest about how difficult the last two months have been for him mentally. Basketball consumed most of his life and when that was taken away there really wasn’t a place to turn.
“Most of us kind of felt mentally trapped,” Niang said. “We weren't able to do what we love, and we weren't able to take a step away from that and live a normal life.”
This week, it got a little closer to normal.