I’ve worked in basketball for 16 years now and can honestly say this season has been 10 seasons wrapped up in one. For years, I believed one week in the NBA in normal circumstances is about the same as one month in regular life. So much happens and changes so fast. This year that has been in overdrive.
For me, the season began on opening night, walking into a client’s house to ride to a game with him. Instead, I ended up going to a hospital for a birth. At the time, it was a reminder that life is so much bigger than just what you do. It has also been the underlying theme to this entire year.
In so many ways, it feels like the current situation came up out of nowhere, but looking back it seems clear the impending danger was coming.
I ignored it.
We ignored it.
I remember hearing the story of the Chinese League shutting down in January and thinking, ‘Well, that’s China.’ In reality, I have flown to China and back in the span of three days for a two-hour meeting before, so if anyone should have been aware of how small the world is, it should have been me.
But I, like everyone, ignored it.
Two days before all of this happened, Bruce Arthur from the Toronto Star asked me if I had made plans for the season being impacted and I indignantly said to him that I didn’t even think the NBA would have to play in empty arenas, let alone postpone games.
Within 24 hours of saying that, the Utah-OKC game had to be stopped. It seems almost surreal to be that wrong.
I have always been a firm believer in the theme of opportunity in every situation. My life and career is a living, breathing reflection of that. As I have looked at this situation, I have been trying to figure out what that is and what the path forward looks like – once the world around us hopefully begins to repair itself, which obviously is the only thing that matters.
In a lot of ways and on a much smaller scale in the context of sports, I equate the scope of emotions with all of this with the range of emotions that occurs when a client gets hurt.
First, there is the shock. Injuries come up out of nowhere, so unexpectedly, and you never consider them until you are sitting in a room with a doctor getting an answer that you don’t want to hear.
Second, there is the initial wave of energy that comes from support. An athlete’s brain is built to thrive on challenges, so once a path of overcoming an injury is laid out, elite athletes make that rehab their new form of competition and they embrace it.
Third, the monotony sets in and the reality of how long the path ahead is and how much the entire ordeal sucks. This is also the phase where self-doubt sets in, where in private moments the thoughts of ‘what if’ creeps in for every reasonable-minded human being.
The fourth and final stage is the rebirth; the rebirth looks different for each person. Sometimes it is everything you want it to be, sometimes it is more, sometimes the completion of the rehab is the finish line itself. You never know until you know.
I remember watching my client, Jimmy Butler, go through his rehab when he hurt his knee in Minnesota and what it was like when he got to the finish line. It was time to test himself for the first time with other moving bodies so I went to Minnesota and watched him play 3-on-3 with two bench players, an intern and coaches. It was the first time I had seen Jimmy play since he got hurt in Houston, so obviously there was some nervous energy and excitement to see where he was at.
In the 30 minutes they played, and we watched him, he stunk. Justin Patton and Amile Jefferson looked like All-Stars. My old client, John Lucas III, who was a coach in Minnesota, started considering a comeback and Kodjoe, an intern in Minnesota who played college basketball, probably thought in the car ride home, “I knew my college coach was a hater.”
But when Jimmy walked off the court and I asked him how he felt, he said, “Great.” Somehow, he knew. A few days later, he played his first game back in Los Angeles. Minnesota had to win their last three games to make the playoffs. I walked into that arena with no clue what was about to happen and very nervous beyond, but also super mindful of how far the path to even get to that point was. I stood in the tunnel feeling like I was going to puke, but very early in that game, it was clear that Jimmy was the best player on the floor and it wasn’t even close. A few days later, he scored 31 points in a must-win game against Denver to get Minnesota into the playoffs for the first time in 14 years. The entire ordeal taught me the lesson and value of perseverance and appreciation of the process itself, what made the other side of that experience so enjoyable was everything it took to get there and it’s a lesson I’ll never forget and it’s a lesson that I apply to now.
The path forward for the NBA is highly unknown, but the values and the lessons of this experience remain. In my opinion, this league has the most recognizable players in the world and I have always felt that the connection comes from a common bond – people can relate to the stories of the players, the players themselves are so accessible and social media fuels that feeling of connectivity.
NBA players have a way of participating in the narrative and stories by being self-deprecating and, just in general, getting it. Right now, there is no more equalizer of humanity then what we are going through. We can go onto Steph Curry’s IG live and hear him tell stories about having to learn how to home school his kids and how hard it is. (Side note: When this all blows over, I am going to represent any and all teachers for free and there won’t be one of them that doesn’t get a max deal). We can tune into Jimmy’s IG Live and see him looking like The Weeknd because he can’t get a haircut.
These are all themes and struggles we can relate to right now. No matter who you are, what you have or what you do, at the core of it all, you are a person flying around on a rock with a bunch of other people.
What we are missing right now is leadership. For the most part, we don’t know who to look to or listen to, who will help us navigate this all. As easy as it is to exchange information right now, we have never been more disconnected. Never! But again, with every void comes opportunity and into that void will come the adaptability of the NBA and its players. The leadership that composes the NBA is second to none, especially when challenged, and no professional sports league has been as challenged in recent memory as the NBA has been this year. Coming out of this, the NBA is going to play 3-on-3 with some low-minute guys and some interns and it is going to show up at its first game back in two months and within four minutes, it is going to scream to its own bench as it runs back down the court after completing a back door alley-oop, “I’m f****** back.”
Until that time, though, I can’t stop thinking about every arena worker, bus driver, bell person, restaurant server, security guard and store clerk that I interact with on a daily basis in my travels around the league and I can’t even imagine the impact this is having on them and their families. I can’t wait to see them again soon as we all rebuild together. Until then if we could all, in the words of the great Samuel L. Jackson, just stay the f*** home so we can hurry this up. By the way, if anyone has a Dr. Fauci throwback jersey from high school, let me know.
Bernie Lee is an NBA agent.