As the days blend together, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has often woken up and performed the following ritual.
Pelinka, who shares his Christian faith openly, prays for the healthcare workers and victims who have suffered during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Then, Pelinka stares at his desk that shows a quote attributed to former South African president Nelson Mandela.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela said. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”
During a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Pelinka stressed he remains mostly concerned with victims of COVID-19 and the healthcare providers who have treated them. Pelinka’s wife, Kristin, is a physician and has often updated him on daily developments. Yet, Pelinka also often repeats Mandela’s quote, which reinforces why he wants the NBA to somehow to salvage its 2019-20 season.
“All of us right now have to live with hope. We have to live with faith, trust and courage and those attributes because it’s a really, really hard and dark time for the world,” Pelinka said. “I’m going to choose to fix most of my thoughts on that we will have a chance to finish the season. I think that would be a great thing for us. But we also know that this situation is so much bigger than basketball. The reason I have that hope is not for personal accomplishment. It’s more that I think it could be the best thing for the world.”
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It would be the best thing for the Lakers, too. Consider what the Lakers did before NBA commissioner Adam Silver suspended the season on March 11 after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.
The Lakers (49-14) boasted the best record in the Western Conference. LeBron James had cemented himself as a legitimate regular-season MVP candidate. Anthony Davis appeared to be the favorite to win the NBA’s defensive player of the year award. The Lakers had already clinched a playoff spot after going through a six-year drought that coincided with their worst stretch in franchise history. They became one of the favorites to win an NBA championship, which would be their first since 2010 and their 17th overall to tie the rival Boston Celtics for the most in league history.
And now the Lakers might not even have the chance to finish writing that compelling script.
“All of us hope there's a way to have an NBA champion crowned,” Pelinka said. “That is something the whole world and sports fans and NBA fans hope -- that we can find a way to have a champion for the 2020 season. But we will only do that if the health officials, Adam Silver and the league and everyone else think that's the best thing for the safety of the players.”
Silver told TNT’s Ernie Johnson he does not expect the NBA to make any decision on its season in April. Therefore, Pelinka said “it’s too early to know” whether the NBA will salvage its season or eventually cancel it. All parties involved have prepared for both worst- and best-case scenarios.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel and his assistants have communicated via Zoom and have scouted potential first-round matchups, including the Memphis Grizzlies (32-33), Portland Trail Blazers (29-37), New Orleans Pelicans (28-36) and Sacramento Kings (28-36). The Lakers’ front office have watched NBA draft prospects on tape and have prepared for possible interviews via Zoom in case the NBA holds a live or virtual draft on June 25. The Lakers’ training staff have held virtual workouts for players via Zoom.
Amid that this uncertainty, the Lakers plan to ask their top-level executives to defer 20 percent of their salary in hopes to keep all of its employees. Staples Center, along with the Lakers, Clippers and Kings, have contributed around $7 million to a fund that will pay its 2,800 full-time and part-time workers for games missed through April 17.
"I would be in support of anything that allows people to keep their jobs in really hard times," Pelinka said. "Anything I can do to be a part of an initiative that allows people to keep their jobs during crisis and hard times? I'll be a part of that."
Meanwhile, the NBA and its players union have brainstormed various ideas on how to salvage the season. They have talked about having a mini training camp to allow players to train before resuming play. They have brainstormed how to salvage at least some of the regular season, including a possible play-in tournament for bottom seeds. They have considered jumping into the playoffs. They have remained open toward hosting games without fans in neutral sites, including Las Vegas. Major League Baseball has proposed a similar idea to have games in Arizona.
“I don’t know the ins and outs of Major League Baseball, so it would be tough for me to sort of comment on what their proposal is and whether it’s feasible,” Pelinka said. “But I do know that the messaging coming from the league is, ‘We are thinking long, hard about what this could look like to get to the end.’ Adam Silver was pretty clear with his message a day or two ago, where he talked about the presidential order for us to stay quarantined and to stay at home going through the end of April. There probably wouldn’t be a clear path or clear guidance or dates discussed until the end of that. But I think all of us hope that we get to May and there will be more information and clearer information.”
And if not? The Lakers somehow might have to accept the reality that this season might not end in a championship parade. Instead, it might end with a series of “what if” questions that can never be answered.
“We haven't had the chance to take a final exam yet. But that doesn't mean we're not going to celebrate the A's that we've gotten so far,” Pelinka said. “I do think there's a sense of fulfillment in that.”
Pelinka also sees a sense of fulfillment with reading Mandela’s quote on a daily basis. It partly explains why Pelinka maintains optimism the NBA will resume its season eventually.
“We certainly hope that at some point as Mr. Mandela says that sports can come back and be a beacon of hope to get all of us through this,” Pelinka said. “We all need it. We all want it. It does bring hope to us. When the government health officials, the leagues, feel like it’s safe for our fans and safe for our players, we look for that platform that hopefully will be a part of the healing that’s going to be needed."
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