Atlanta takes on the 2021 NBA All-Star Game

State Farm Arena will be home to the 2021 NBA All Star Game on March 7th. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

Last Minute Game Plans

The 2021 NBA All-Star Game is an area of contention for local government officials, NBA players, fans and public health experts. Recently, the U.S. recorded over 500,000 COVID-19-related deaths, which is about the size of Atlanta’s population. Some criticize the NBA for holding an extraneous event, while others see no problem with it.

Initially, the NBA scheduled the All-Star Game in Indianapolis, but scheduling conflicts and the ongoing pandemic pushed the game to Atlanta. The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association will donate $2.5 million to Atlanta’s historically Black colleges and universities and COVID-19 relief funding.

Like other major sports leagues, the NBA’s handling of COVID-19 is questionable at times. The NBA Orlando Bubble, using six Disney hotels and frequently testing over 5,000 people over 96 days, led to zero positive coronavirus tests; at one point, the Bubble worked to perfection.

Then, the 2020-21 regular season began, and by the second day, the league postponed 30 more games, including a matchup between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets. The league witnessed some of their most talented players lose significant time to contact tracing.

MVP candidate Kevin Durant had to leave the Brooklyn Nets Feb. 5 home game against the Toronto Raptors due to contact tracing after initially getting cleared to play. Many people see this as Durant’s fault, but it introduces a bigger question.

Why is having the All-Star Game such a big deal to the league?

There are a few answers, but the players’ actions and words may give us the most context.

Future Hall of Famer LeBron James wanted to take this past weekend to rest and spend time with his family. Instead, he played in a game that he had “zero energy and zero excitement about,” something he expressed a month ago.

“We’re still dealing with everything that’s been going on, and we’re going to bring the whole league into one city that’s open?” James rhetorically asked the media last month. “Obviously, the pandemic has absolutely nothing to do with it at this point when it comes to that weekend.”

James’ comments could also come from starting the All-Star Game each year since 2004, his second NBA season. Even with millions of people selecting him to play, the Los Angeles Lakers superstar is reserved.

Carmelo Anthony later endorsed James’ comments. Anthony, a personal friend of James, tweeted, “I don’t think it’s right. I don’t think we need it.”

While Anthony and James feel strongly about this past weekend’s All-Star Game and bringing the whole league to Atlanta, it is crucial to consider that teams are still traveling for road games.

In the most recent batch of 456 tests between Feb. 24 and last Wednesday, seven players tested positive for the coronavirus.

Technical Foul: Pre-gaming

The NBA and Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms condemned all bars, restaurants and fans that hosted All-Star Weekend-related events or advertised any events using the NBA’s likeness. 

To curb social gatherings, days before the game, the NBA issued nearly 100 cease and desist letters to local promoters who used the words “All-Star Game” or the NBA’s logo to garner patron’s attention.

“We are in agreement that this is a made-for-TV event only, and people should not travel to Atlanta to party,” Mayor Bottoms said in a recent statement.

Colin Smith is a clinical professor in the school of public health at Georgia State. Smith mentioned that it is not entirely fair to blame the NBA for people gathering in large numbers during All-Star Weekend when people willfully frequented bars and clubs already. 

“We need to be very careful about pointing fingers at the NBA saying, ‘[Rising cases were] obviously a result of people going out and celebrating because of the All-Star Game,’ when other bars, restaurants, clubs and fans were going out anyway,” Smith said.

Keeping COVID-19 On the Sideline

The league continues to implement new protocols, such as requiring all players and team personnel to wear masks at all times when not playing. Off the court, the press conducts conferences through Zoom, and a limited number of media personnel can attend home games for their respective teams.

State Farm Arena’s health precautions for the game are not straightforward, as the Hawks declined to comment on how COVID-19 will remain outside the venue’s door. The only COVID-19 safety measures available are those released by the NBA that the arena reiterated verbatim on its website.

According to the NBA, leading up to the All-Star Game, players may only travel via NBA-provided transportation from their last game to their homes. Traveling to Atlanta, players must take private transport provided by the NBA. Like the Orlando Bubble, players are not allowed to leave their designated hotel during their stay in Atlanta unless they participate in All-Star Game activities.

Fans are not allowed in the State Farm Arena, and players are allowed up to four guests to accompany them to the game.

When players sub out during a game, they walk adjacent to the bench to a “cool-down zone,” 12 feet from the team’s bench. Players do not wear a mask in this area, but they must wear one after they cool down and return to their bench. All of the assigned seats are six feet away from each other.

Coaches were also required to wear masks at all times. However, the Toronto Raptors’ coaching staff did not always utilize their masks, and many believe their actions contributed to some of those seven positive tests.

The All-Star Game will follow the same protocol.

Game On! But Don’t Forget Your Mask 

Sunday night featured two night’s worth of events.

In the past, the NBA held the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Shootout and Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday nights. However, this year, the three events happened before and during the All-Star Game’s halftime.

The Skills Challenge introduced the evening’s events at 6:30 p.m. In this event, six players completed an obstacle course to test their all-around abilities, including passing, shooting and dribbling stations.

Then came the Three-Point Shootout, another staple of All-Star Weekend.

The All-Star Game followed the Skills Challenge and saw 30 players represent 18 different teams. In the second year of the Elam Ending, some people may have wanted the event to end sooner. 

However, the halftime show of the All-Star Game brought something other than a musical performance. The Slam Dunk Contest happened during halftime. 

While players were socially distanced and were required to wear masks on the bench, they still played a basketball game together. The virus could end up affecting any of these players.

Kevin Durant, who led the Western Conference in votes, sat out Sunday due to a left hamstring strain. A now-11-time All-Star, Durant tested positive for COVID-19 a year ago. Jayson Tatum and Nikol Jokic, two players who competed in the event, also tested positive. Tatum, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Wednesday, continues to feel the effects of his diagnosis from January. 

Though not a staunch basketball fan, Smith thinks that the All-Star game can improve players’ and fans’ morale, providing them with some sense of normality despite the event’s modified schedule.

“Certainly, we’ve all been restricted on the things we’re allowed to do, so this [game] has somewhat of a morale value to everybody involved, be they fans, coaches, staff or players themselves,” Smith said. “So you have to balance out the risk involved. The risk of putting on the event versus the potential morale-boosting benefit of holding an event.”

But avid NBA fans like junior Jermaine Noble, public health student at Georgia State, weren’t overly excited for the All-Star Game. Noble thinks the game was “unnecessary” and believed the event shouldn’t have happened until after the festivities can safely return.

“I understand the NBA still wants to make money, but it doesn’t mean they should put players’ health at risk,” he said. “The All-Star Game should have been canceled this year because what’s the point if people can’t get the true thrill of the game?”


Editors Note: This story was edited to reflect that the Hawks declined to comment on safety measures at State Farm Arena. Updated: 3/9/21 at 11:49 a.m.