GUADALAJARA, Mexico – The day before Antonio Álvarez’s home debut for the Astros de Jalisco, his original basketball team, the power forward waited in a hotel room in Guadalajara under protocols from strict isolation, occasionally listening to fireworks. Outside, Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations raged for those ignoring the government’s social distancing guidelines. Álvarez said his family was at home, choosing not to participate in the festivities due to the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic.
His family often watched him compete on the pitch as he grew up in Guadalajara, the capital of the state of Jalisco. But now, even though he played in Mexico’s highest professional basketball league and represented Jalisco, the coronavirus pandemic meant his family couldn’t watch him in person, but instead had to follow him from their home there. ‘other side of Guadalajara.
“It’s a little weird being so close to my house, but I can’t go,” Álvarez, 21, said in Spanish. He added: “To have my family close, but they can’t be there in the arena – it’s a tough situation, but it’s the best we can do right now to keep our families safe. and the team.
In early September, the Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Profesional kicked off a shortened season, even as the country had been hit hard by the pandemic. While its popularity does not come close to that of Mexico’s top soccer league, the top LNBP players are well-known characters, especially those who also play for the Mexican national team. League matches are usually noisy events with almost full arenas.
As the league warned, Mexico had passed 650,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and 70,000 virus-related deaths, the fourth highest death toll for any country. But it was believed that even this grim total greatly underestimated the dead.
Despite these difficult circumstances, the league believes it will crown a champion this season by following its health and safety protocols based on guidelines from FIBA, the international governing body of basketball and the World Health Organization.
“During this atypical year, the LNBP has made a massive effort to deploy this season, all aimed at giving a message of optimism and hope to all our fans, and to all of Mexico,” said Alonso Izaguirre, the commissioner of the LNBP who is also a former player.
Izaguirre said team owners, staff, players and coaches have been battling around ideas such as creating bubbles in cities like Guadalajara, Chihuahua and Monterrey. Five of the 17 teams in the league have chosen not to participate in the 2020 season – some felt it was not economically possible to participate without fans, and others decided that serious outbreaks of the virus in their region would make the game too dangerous – and the season has been condensed to 20 games against 36. They will face off over two months, instead of the usual four and a half, with 12 teams playing in weekly consecutive games.
Instead of creating a global bubble environment with daily testing, like the NBA did at Walt Disney World in Florida, the 12 LNBP teams create mini-bubbles in hotels for players and staff at each of the teams. their cities. They travel between cities in disinfected private buses and are tested for the virus every two weeks, unless they show obvious symptoms during twice-daily checks.
In the first two sets of tests to start the season, eight players tested positive across four teams. Seven have left isolation and are playing, while one player remains isolated.
“This has not been easy. The circumstances and the resources, the budgets of each of the teams here in Mexico are different from those of the other leagues, ”said Izaguirre. “We know our resources are limited. But if we are all united in one cause, with one goal, I believe we can move forward in the midst of this pandemic. In this way, we try to supplement the lack of resources with awareness. “
The league also relies on strict restrictions on the movement of players and coaches.
Karim Rodríguez, an American-Mexican LNBP player from San Diego, spends most evenings on FaceTime with his wife and two young children in California, playing PlayStation or watching the NBA playoffs. There is not much else to do.
“Sometimes we want to play Hold ‘Em or dominoes or something, but we can’t,” said Rodríguez, an eight-year LNBP veteran. “We’re not supposed to be in groups of more than two or three at a time so that no one gets infected.”
The team only leaves the designated floor of their hotel for games, twice daily practice, and to eat at a single quarantined restaurant. Unlike the NBA bubble, families won’t be allowed to join teams, there are no social events at night, and players aren’t even allowed to walk outside.
Rodríguez has considered sitting down during the season, partly out of fear of contracting the coronavirus, but more so because his family would face continued isolation and the risk of contagion without him. He was also not happy with another stipulation of the season: everyone from the commissioner to players and staff had to take a pay cut.
“I’m not going to play a less harsh percentage than last season, so why does my pay have to be lower?” Rodríguez said. “But I spoke to friends in the league, and their teams did too.”
He added that he also understood the decision because the games were not going to have fans, merchandise for sale, or concession stands.
His teammate Héctor Hernández agreed.
“We’re grateful to have a job when there are a lot of people in Mexico who don’t have one,” said Hernández, a former national team player in his 13th season in the LNBP. “As players, we have to sacrifice ourselves. Everyone in the league has to sacrifice themselves to make this season go ahead.
The Astros faced the Abejas de Leon on September 17, the day after Independence Day, winning 99-93 in front of a nearly empty arena dotted with a few members of the media, team staff and some sponsors. The ball echoed with every bounce, and every cry of “and one” carried throughout the arena.
While no fan saw his face displayed during the game, as the NBA did, they were able to watch online for free on Facebook and take online player and game quizzes to keep them engaged.
Even if the LNBP wanted to change their minds about having fans, it wouldn’t be possible for all of their teams. Mexico has a traffic light reopening system, in which each state is assigned a designation of red, orange, yellow, or green to represent the level of coronavirus restrictions. Jalisco remains orange, while eight states have changed to yellow, which would allow events to open to participants in limited capacity. Some are gradually moving closer to green, but public health officials remain concerned.
Dr Laurie Ann Ximénez-Fyvie, head of the molecular genetics laboratory at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, called the government’s response to the pandemic “horrific.” She called the combination of big holidays like Independence Day and Day of the Dead, the opening of events in some states and the start of flu season a “recipe for disaster.”
Two states with teams in the LNBP are designated yellow, but Dr Ximénez-Fyvie projected others could join them soon, and potentially go green, as the federal government continues to downplay the pandemic. She specifically pointed out the unknown number of actual cases due to the lack of community testing and contact tracing.
But Izaguirre remains hopeful that fans will be able to attend games at some point “whatever is best for the teams and for the league at that time.”
Until then, Álvarez’s family will have to continue cheering from home. Still, he said he was “proud” to play where he started his basketball journey.
“There is an added excitement to coming home and representing my condition,” he said.