SALT LAKE CITY — As the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder warmed up before Saturday's game, Donovan Mitchell and Chris Paul met together. As the All-Star guards spoke in the near-empty arena in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, it was hard not to reflect on all that has changed since the time the two last shared a court before an NBA game.
That was back on March 11 when the Thunder and the Jazz game was stopped mere moments before it was set to begin. Starting lineups had been announced and players were out on the court awaiting the tip when referees got word Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus.
No game would be played.
The teams walked off the court, signaling at fans — the last they'd see in an NBA arena for some time — and headed into the unknown.
“It's pretty surreal that we ended up here,” Mitchell said.
A game that was delayed for 143 days was finally played on Saturday. As players warmed up that night in March, no one would have predicted that. And no one has predicted it would take place far from either team’s home stadium on a campus players aren't allowed to leave.
That postponed game was the beginning of a life-changing moment in America. The league went into hiatus, stopping the season and beginning a domino effect that impacted not just sports but also businesses, cities and states. On March 11, fans could leave their homes to go to a basketball game. On March 12, there wasn’t much left to attend.
That night in Oklahoma City was surreal, the days immediately following were surreal, and everything since, including the very fact Mitchell and Paul were standing together in a gym in Florida with no fans about to play an NBA game, has been surreal.
That postponed game was part of history. By getting to finally tip-off, it provided some sort of closure on what has been a bizarre time for the players and coaches.
“Honestly, it was kind of refreshing to go out there and play that game, specifically because it is kind of the one that really changed a lot throughout the world,” Mitchell said. “And I think for us to kind of get out there, outside of just the game itself but as a whole moment for the NBA, I think it was a pretty special moment.”
The game itself didn't end up being special — a 110-94 blowout win by the Thunder that wasn’t even that close — but the moment was still significant because of what the teams went through over four months ago as they walked off the floor in Oklahoma City.
It was a night filled with confusion and fear. The Jazz players were tested for a virus they, like most, knew little about. And they didn't even know where they'd be staying the night or how — or even if — they would get home.
“What happened in OKC,” Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said, “it was historic. I think it's hard to imagine when you look back, the circumstances that occurred not only with the cancellation of the game and subsequently the season. But to have our two primary players, two guys on our team that were in the All-Star Game, to have them both test positive and no one else in the group, was a little bit surreal the whole evening was surreal.”
And, really, so was Saturday’s game. It's going to take more than a couple games for it now to feel different playing in front empty chairs and digital fans. It's still strange — just like life has been ever since that March night in Oklahoma.
“It gives you an appreciation for really, in many ways, how unimportant that game was relative to all the people that have been fighting this virus,” Snyder said. “The healthcare workers that are on the frontlines; people that have given their lives to protect other people; the many people that have gotten sick; the people who tragically have passed away. So that game starts to fade away as far as its importance on a larger scale.”