Photo courtesy of CBS Sports

The New-Look NBA from the Eyes of a Player Health Professional

From the cancellation of the Boston Marathon for the first time in 124 years to stalled negotiations between baseball players and the MLB for a 2020 season, the world of sports has been drastically impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

On June 4th, the NBA’s Board of Governors and the Player’s Union approved plans to resume the 2019-2020 season on July 31 at the Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

This plan, which includes an eight-game wrap up to the regular season followed by a possible play-in tournament for the eighth seed, will involve 22 teams, including the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Gavel had the privilege of interviewing Jesse Elis, Director of Player Health & Performance for the Trail Blazers, about how the new NBA will look and the potential impact of being quarantined in Orlando could have on players. 

Elis got his start with professional athletes at the San Francisco Giants spring training in Arizona. He later joined the Blazers in 2017, where he is able to have a significant influence on player health management at the team facility in Portland, Oregon, and on the road.

The COVID-19 outbreak has created, “a much different story,” in how Elis and his colleagues maintain and monitor the health of Blazers players. Prior to the outbreak, players were used to morning sessions consisting of, “requested manual therapy/massage, light lifting session, game prep, and shooting.”

The team’s regimented schedule drastically changed early on in the quarantine period as player access to the facility was completely restricted. As a result, all communication between players and the league’s health professionals went virtual. 

In an effort to aid the players in their transition out of scheduled training at the facility, “each player was sent training equipment (kettlebells, bikes, bands, etc) during the strictest isolation period.” However, “for the last 3 weeks, the players have been cleared to work out at the practice facility” but still maintain, “formal protocol to minimize exposure.”

Among the current protocol that the team has to follow is the restriction of allowing, “only 4 players in the practice facility at a time.” Elis outlined what a new basketball workout might look like under the new conditions.

“One player per basketball hoop and only one player at a time is allowed in the weight room and training room. The schedule is staggered throughout the day to maintain the specific protocol from the league.” 

In addition to the current hurdles the Blazers have faced in Portland due to COVID-19, there are many that remain for them to overcome in Florida. Elis notes that the “Orlando bubble” will present a major hurdle of mental toughness. 

Once at Walt Disney World, “players and staff could be quarantined in the bubble for up to 3 months” causing the whole experience to potentially “be unique and challenging as players will need to be intrinsically driven.” 

According to Elis, the future games in Florida will impact player morale because there will be, “no home-court advantage but more fans.”

In addition to mental toughness, the other major challenge facing health professionals in the NBA is, “physically ramping the players up safely as they have been extremely limited in basketball load specific to game speed and contact.”

COVID-19 has also affected how the NBA has scouted college prospects. Prior to the virus, teams had college players perform on-site basketball workouts to get a closer look at their skills.

However, “the effects of COVID-19 have resulted in no team workouts and front offices have to rely on other strategies [such as] game tape [and] interviews.”

While the NBA board of governors offered a tentative December 1st start date for the 2020-21 season, a definitive plan for the upcoming season has yet to be made. The next few months in Florida will allow the league to figure out what works and if there are any ways to improve for the future. 

The Gavel wishes Jesse Elis, the Portland Trail Blazers, and the rest of the NBA the best of luck in Florida.   

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Grew up in the Arizona desert but my heart is at Fenway. When I’m not watching Patriots games, you can find me grabbing some ramen or catching up on Hawaii Five-O with friends.