Updated: April 2, 2020 12:34:13 pm
By Marc Stein
Josh Hart and the New Orleans Pelicans were supposed to play at home against the New York Knicks last Friday. Hart instead found himself stuck at home and in a mood to muse.
“I miss the Premier League,” Hart said on Twitter along with a sad-face emoji.
With the weekend approaching, Hart couldn’t help himself. The NBA’s shutdown in response to the global coronavirus outbreak has abruptly foisted chaos and uncertainty upon everyone associated with professional basketball. But Saturdays and Sundays, marquee NBA days, have also meant watching Chelsea matches by any means necessary for Hart and his close friend, Larry Nance Jr. of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“My two favorite things to do this time of year are to play basketball and watch soccer,” Nance said. “I know how all NBA fans feel. I feel like I lost two seasons.”
Hart and Nance are among the most vocal of a growing community of NBA players who fervently follow international soccer, which has also been largely brought to a halt by the coronavirus pandemic. They were teammates on the Los Angeles Lakers for half a season and excitedly shared their fandom with two other soccer-loving Lakers: Alex Caruso, a Manchester City supporter, and the retired forward Luol Deng, who spent a chunk of his youth in London and closely follows Arsenal.
Like hundreds of players across the NBA, Hart and Nance are adjusting to their new realities, trying to maintain some semblance of conditioning without games, practices or much permissible contact with other humans amid strict instructions to self-quarantine.
Many players, Hart said, can’t do anything constructive with a basketball under these circumstances because they don’t have access to team facilities, and both private gyms and public courts are widely off limits.
“When you’re not even getting shots up, it’s definitely going to take a long time for guys to get back, not only physically into playing shape but also mentally,” Hart said.
Yet Hart and Nance are inevitably pining for their favorite off-court outlet, too. The Premier League season has been suspended until at least April 30 and will likely be further delayed. Hart and Nance have become two of Chelsea’s most widely known celebrity fans, embraced to such a degree that they were featured together last week on the club’s official American podcast.
They have struck up friendships with Chelsea players like Mason Mount, Antonio Rudiger and, of course, the budding American star Christian Pulisic. They mourned after two former Chelsea stalwarts who double as huge NBA fans — Eden Hazard and the goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois — left for Real Madrid. They are also in a 26-team Premier League fantasy league with Caruso, Deng, Philadelphia’s Josh Richardson, Detroit’s John Henson and Stu Holden, a former U.S. men’s national team midfielder and a prominent soccer broadcaster.
Last April, Nance traveled to England after the Cavaliers’ season ended to watch five Premier League matches in five days. He naturally built the trip around a trip to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge and added stops at Manchester City, Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United. Hart’s chance to make his first trip to “The Bridge” came in August, starting with a visit to the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Hart remembered excitedly calling Nance before the kickoff, awestruck by the noise rising around him at his first-ever live Premier League game as a spectator. Nance advised him to stay ready for the first “when the Spurs go marching in” chant from the Tottenham fans.
“I felt chills,” Hart said.
Now Hart and Nance are closely monitoring Premier League developments for entirely different reasons. The Independent newspaper reported on Sunday that league officials are considering bringing all 20 teams in the top tier of English soccer to one or two centralized locations in June and July to isolate them in “World Cup-style” training camps. They would then try to complete the remaining 92 matches in a closed-door, made-for-TV extravaganza.
Similar concepts have likewise been circulating in NBA circles in recent days, with Commissioner Adam Silver describing himself as “an optimist by nature” in an ESPN interview and encouraging open thinking — provided the coronavirus outbreak eases soon. Hope persists in some corners of the league that 30 teams could somehow convene in, say, Las Vegas to try to play out, at worst, a modified postseason in July, August and/or September.
“If they try that in England and it works, you better believe that we’re going to be a few weeks behind that and probably try the same thing,” Nance said.
Nance, though, said he feared that “we’re done” for this NBA season. He has been deeply unsettled by the COVID-19 pandemic as someone who long ago learned he had Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease whose medication makes him more at risk for infections because it weakens his immune system.
On top of that constant worry is the general concern harbored by many NBA players about what such a sudden halt to the schedule will do to his body.
“Right now, if you’re really doing what you’re supposed to do and just staying at home and not seeing anybody and you’re following the rules that you’re supposed to follow, unless you have a home gym you can’t work out,” Nance said. “In my house, I don’t have a home gym. I’ve got a Peloton bike and a few weights here and there, but that’s not going to keep me in shape for basketball. Everybody’s out of basketball shape.”
Hart had eagerly anticipated a busy March and April toggling between his day job and his intoxicating hobby following Chelsea. While Hart’s soccer team had climbed into a top-four spot in the Premier League, New Orleans (28-36) was just 3 1/2 games behind eighth-seeded Memphis and had the most favorable closing schedule of any team in the hunt for the West’s final playoff berth when the NBA announced its indefinite suspension on March 11.
“I’m not very optimistic about the season starting any time in the next two, three, four months,” Hart said. “It’s just too hard. Unless they were somehow able to build a huge hotel and an arena and put a bubble over it in some random place somewhere, that’s my only guess how to actually finish the season in the next several months. You really do have to create a bubble.”
It would appear that fans of both the NBA and international soccer can identify with the sense of emptiness Hart tweeted about: By Tuesday, his post had more than 70,000 likes.
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