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Spencer Haywood, Thurl Bailey, Dave Cowens
Spencer Haywood, Thurl Bailey, Dave Cowens are members of the National Basketball Retired Players Association.

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How retired NBA players are helping each other survive the coronavirus

Retired NBA players are more vulnerable to the coronavirus than active ones. Here’s what they’re doing about it.

Moments before the NBA suspended its season, Thurl Bailey was at Chesapeake Energy Arena preparing to call a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder that would never happen. It was a night like any other, until it wasn’t.

After Jazz all-star Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus and the 18,000-plus person crowd was calmly instructed to exit the building, Bailey, who played in Utah for 10 seasons, was whisked off the court behind Jazz players and broadcast colleagues.

The 58-year-old recalls being led with about seven others into a lounge near the visitor’s locker room. There they sat, eyes glued to a television that was reporting their own surreal experience in real time. Jazz head coach Quin Snyder settled some of Bailey’s nerves when he walked in the room to brief everyone on the situation, as serious as it was. Eventually Bailey was led from that room to another, where medical professionals in protective gear, gloves, and facemasks collected his personal information so he could be tested for Covid-19.

A doctor braced him for the process by letting him know what to expect and how uncomfortable it might be, before a cotton swab was inserted into his nose and mouth. According to Bailey, it was painless and simple. Waiting for results was anything but. After they quarantined at the arena for over four hours, the Jazz spent the night in an Oklahoma City hotel. Bailey sat in his room, concern mounting as he thought about his wife and children.

“What if my test is positive?” he remembers. “Was I next to Rudy? How long was I next to him? Can you receive it if you’re on the same plane as people? All those things you start replaying in your mind.”

In the morning a Jazz employee called Bailey with good news: his results were negative. Soon after, the team flew back to Salt Lake City where they met with Angela Dunn, a state epidemiologist at Utah’s Department of Health. She went over different risk factors, explained the meaning of asymptomatic, and made strong suggestions on how they (and everyone around them) should act through the life-changing days and weeks and months that loomed ahead.

Before the season was suspended, Bailey’s daily responsibilities were not limited to his job as a broadcast analyst for the Jazz. Earlier this month, he was elected as a board of director for the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), a 1,000-plus member organization that includes some of the sport’s most integral historic figures — former players from the NBA, WNBA, ABA, and Harlem Globetrotters.

Right now, in the face of a crippling global pandemic, its members also represent an increasingly vulnerable and shaken segment of society that needs all the security, support, and accurate information they can find. The average member is 55 years old and over 200 of them are at least 70. All are impacted by the coronavirus, stressed over their own future, from a physical, emotional, and financial perspective.

In addition to Bailey — who previously served before he was termed out of the role due to appointment related rules — other recently elected directors include Shawn Marion, Sheryl Swoopes, and Dave Cowens. (Cowens helped found the association in 1992 with Oscar Robertson, Dave Bing, Archie Clark, and Dave DeBusschere.) Johnny Davis was named chairman of the board after spending 34 seasons as an NBA player and coach, while Jerome Williams and Grant Hill were elevated into different roles on the executive committee.

Normally, the association serves multiple functions. It’s a helping hand to members in search of new professional and/or educational opportunities. It reminds them of their own value as walking brand names, and encourages them to engage with the public in different ways. But unfortunately, our current timeline is anything but normal. The NBRPA has always expressed solicitude for its own, but right now its first, second, and third priority is to ensure the health and wellness of every member who feels susceptible.

“No one’s immune to [Covid-19], but it is a greater concern for our demographics, if you will,” Bailey says. “A lot of our players are the older generation.”

The NBRPA has been in front of the issue as best it can. All former players with at least three years service have healthcare coverage, while counseling services, scholarships, grants, and a rainy day fund for any members who are struggling to cope are in place. General awareness of these resources has been spread via email and phone calls, but this pandemic’s unpredictable scale will test mechanisms that have never been burdened by a threat this widespread and relentless.

Many members work part time and are unsure of how they’ll pay their next bill or make future house payments. Dozens have contacted the organization for assistance, which tells NBRPA President and CEO Scott Rochelle that many more may want to. “There’s probably another hundred who need to reach out or haven’t reached out but need the information,” he tells me. “So that’s guiding our efforts to date.”

Spencer Haywood, who just termed out after two straight three-year stints as the NBRPA’s chairman of the board, can’t stop thinking about his fellow members, former teammates, and friends who were suffering even before the globe was blanketed by coronavirus.

“I love them,” Haywood says. “Everybody just calls, ‘Hey can you help me with $300. I need $400, $500. I need this to make my rent. I need this to get food ... We don’t have a revenue stream. All of our guys have to work. They’re doing basketball camps. They’re traveling. They do groups. That’s how they make money ... We’re at the very beginning [of this pandemic], so I know our family, the NBA retired family, we’re gonna have some drama. I’m hoping that it’s not me. But who knows?”

Now 70 and living in Las Vegas, Haywood has done his best to stay as safe as he possibly can, stopping just short of hoarding Purell and essential groceries several weeks ago when his brother, who lives in France, first told him how deadly the virus can be. His four daughters teased him about being overly cautious, but now admit he was right to be so proactive.

Aside from his inability to resist two concerts at the House of Blues, put on by Arrested Development and Leslie Odom Jr. before everything shut down — “I couldn’t help myself!” Haywood laughs. “I went out against orders” — he’s replaced daily trips to the gym with morning yoga and five-mile walks at a nearby park.

While shuttered at home last Saturday afternoon, Haywood — a four-time NBA All-Star and ABA MVP as a 20-year-old rookie — let a few hours pass in front of ESPN’s panoramic Basketball: A Love Story documentary series, which featured his own 1971 Supreme Court case brought against the NBA that essentially allowed amateurs to bypass college and enter the NBA Draft straight out of high school. “I’m sitting there watching,” he laughs. “And I’m like ‘Damn. Pretty nice. I did some deep shit.”

As it rolled across his television, Haywood says a few friends who were also cooped up watching the same thing decided to call him: “They were like, ‘Man, I didn’t know you went through that kind of hell’. And I said ‘You were in the league!’ Man, oh man.”

But the pandemic has also emphasized a few general frustrations Haywood wants to air: “We wasted so much time in fake news and fake this, like shit, dude, if you didn’t want to be president, why did you run?”

He praises the donations made by current players to arena employees who, without NBA games, no longer have a job to do, and appreciates the players union’s unanimous vote that gave healthcare coverage to retired players back in 2016 “[NBPA President] Chris Paul has been a champion,” Haywood says. “I mean truly life saving.”

But in the midst of a broad crisis that will be felt by more former players than are currently under the NBRPA’s umbrella, Haywood also believes today’s stars should make additional contributions. “It’s a survival thing.” he says. “Think about the ones who built it for you. Who built this big conglomerate for you. I think they just don’t know. They never think about us.”

For the NBRPA, spring is typically a busy time of year, with college conference tournaments, the NCAA tournament, the McDonald’s All-American game, and Full Court Press, a nationwide youth clinic launched through the Jr. NBA. In the coming months, members lined up to earn between $250-500k in appearances alone. Instead, thanks to a wave of cancellations, revenue is at zero. There are still engagement opportunities being explored through NBA2K, Twitch, and social media, but the ramifications are undeniable.

Speaking appearances are another source of income for those who can leverage their name and life experience to travel across the country and meet with different people. That includes Haywood’s successor, Davis, the NBRPA’s newly elected chairman. The 64-year-old lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and normally spends his time giving talks at different colleges and universities in the area. He also sits on the foundation board at UNC-Asheville, where he’s heavily involved.

But with those opportunities no longer an option for the foreseeable future, Davis is instead staying put at his home up in the Blue Ridge mountains with his wife and son, where they’ve lived since 2009. “The warning bell has been sounded,” he tells me. “You can see the presence of what this virus has done. You can see it here in terms of how people are moving in their day to day lives. It’s different. It feels different.”

Davis is also spending some time acclimating to his new role with the NBRPA, going through the bylaws with Cowens, who lives in Maine for most of the year but has been down in Ft. Lauderdale since Jan. 10. Despite not having a full-time job, Cowens tries to keep himself busy. Last week he signed and mailed 800 basketball cards for Panini, the memorabilia company, that compensated him for the service. “It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to pay a few bills,” he says.

The Hall of Famer currently lives two blocks from the beach in a 19-story building, with 12 units on each floor. He’s neighborly, but most of the residents are on the older side, and over the past couple weeks everybody has kept to themselves.

Nights are spent out on his balcony, drinking an occasional glass of wine. When asked about the NBA deciding to suspend its season, Cowens says he would’ve liked to see at least one game played without any fans in the stands. The sound of squeaking shoes, shouting coaches, grunting players, and a natural silence that would otherwise be filled by the Jumbotron reminds him of old exhibition games that his Celtics used to play against the Knicks in upstate New York. Only 1,500 people were in the stands.

But there are more pressing matters on his mind. Now 71, Cowens is troubled by everything we don’t know about the coronavirus, how there’s no vaccine or direct word from the inflicted about how it made them actually feel. He worries about his wife. He checks up on old college buddies from Florida State, and recently phoned former Celtics teammate Don Chaney, who’s dealing with a heart condition and is likely at a higher risk than most.

“There’s so much uncertainty. If you’re feeling fine, but all of a sudden you start feeling sick, you then say ‘Am I gonna die from this?’ And so you don’t know. Young people don’t care because they’re already immune to everything in the world anyway. They’re gonna live forever. But they’re young, that’s how they think, and for the most part they’re in pretty good shape for dealing with this,” Cowens starts to chuckle. “So I don’t hang out at the clubs anymore. That’s not part of the schedule.”

No one interviewed for this story can compare such active worldwide disruption to anything they’ve witnessed or experienced firsthand. None can think of anything that comes close. It’s an unknown anxiety, like walking a plank while blindfolded from an unknown height. The future grows more murky by the day. “The thing that bothers me so bad is they don’t know when it’s gonna end,” Cowens says, “Or is it?”

He reminisces about his childhood in Newport, Kentucky. Cowens’ grandparents and aunt lived upstairs, in the same house as his parents and brother. His aunt would entertain with stories about getting to see Jim Thorpe (the only sports hero Cowens ever had) race with her own two eyes.

Cowens thinks about that time; how his grandfather lived to see his 60s despite serving in World War I and then enduring the Spanish Flu, which killed as many as 50 million people across the world. “People are going to survive,” Cowens says. That’s true. But the coronavirus will still crash into so many different lives, and so far the mortality rate for those it infects is substantially higher in seniors with underlying health issues.

Preparing for a disease that will infect and bankrupt thousands of people everyday was never in the NBRPA‘s sight line, and, frankly, it’d be a little silly if it was. Very few organizations in this country, if any, were prepared. But that hasn’t stopped them from doing whatever they can to steady the emotional wave so many are flailing through.

Right now, the organization’s primary motivation is to keep a bad situation from getting worse, and so far most retired players are doing whatever they can to limit the damage. Social distancing and self-quarantining are two examples of individual responsibility each person must take seriously. Most retired players are. The NBRPA can’t help those who won’t help themselves, but they can spread facts and manageable tactics that will save lives. The minefield of misinformation can in many ways be as dangerous as an errant cough.

Towards the end of his career, Bailey spent four seasons playing overseas. Three of them were in Italy, where he formed lifelong friendships. For the last five summers, he’s gone back to put on a basketball camp. Over the past couple weeks, Bailey has been texting with those who know firsthand what the coronavirus is capable of. They beg him to take it seriously. Given his position with the NBRPA, those around him are fortunate that he is.

“Our organization is staying on top of our members and their families to make sure they’re getting through it,” Bailey says. “It’s something that will always be etched in history. I was there. I was there the day the dominoes started to fall in Oklahoma City. In the sports world, anyway.”

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