The Wizards are staying connected, even as they keep a distance
By Candace Buckner
When the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the NBA, the Washington Wizards had to huddle quickly. Like every team in the league, the Wizards found themselves searching for answers to unsolvable questions and trying to keep the team united, even through forced separation.
On March 11, when the league announced the suspension of the regular season, the Wizards held a conference call. Every player, coach and staff member heard from Monumental Basketball officials, including the team’s medical experts, who wanted to dispel myths and share updates at a time when little was known. Since then, there have been almost daily connections and detailed solutions for how suddenly out-of-action NBA players can get through the quarantine.
Blair O’Donovan, the team’s director of physical preparation, has used Zoom video conferencing to lead players through individualized workouts.
When players need more than physical exercise, Derick Anderson, a leading sports psychologist, and two local pastors have been on call.
When they need to know what to eat at home — the kitchen at the practice facility closed — team nutritionist Sue Saunders Bouvier has shared advice. And if players don’t know the difference between a skillet and a sauce pan, chef Stephen Korda has guided novices through cooking sessions.
“So far, so good,” General Manager Tommy Sheppard said.
Amid the NBA shutdown, no Wizards player has tested positive for the coronavirus. On March 12, the team announced it would test its members who develop flu-like symptoms.
“We haven’t had any issues,” Sheppard said recently. “Our guys have been asymptomatic. We haven’t had the cause to go out and test people, and I think we have to be real cognizant of shortages of tests. … And also, logically, let’s wait.”
When the NBA permitted players to travel, several Wizards left the area to return to their home bases. As of March 23, Sheppard estimated 13 players remained in the region, but he expected that number to dwindle as the hiatus continued. The Wizards don’t mind their players leaving as long as they continue to practice social distancing and remember to be a professional and stay in shape.
Bradley Beal and John Wall, high-paid veterans who own palatial homes equipped with basketball courts and weight rooms, should be just fine. (They have live-streamed their workouts on Instagram.) The team’s younger players face more of a challenge. The shared fitness rooms in their apartment complexes or condominiums might be closed, so they are left confined in their space without much equipment. Still, the Wizards found a fix for that.
The team sent every player a kit with tactile foam rolls and performance bands. Some were for light resistance to attach around their ankles for squats; others were heavy duty enough to hang from the ceiling for lat pull downs. Although each player received something different for his personal needs, the team shared the same goal: Stay active and try to keep a routine.
“It’s a very challenging time, so for us I think we have to sympathize and emphasize with players who are used to being in more structure, as we all are finding ourselves in a new reality, and make the best of the situation,” said Sashi Brown, chief planning and operations officer at Monumental Basketball. “A big piece of that is communication and finding creativity and innovative ways to be in touch with players and help them find solutions for staying in shape, working out, eating the right way while we’re out.”
The Wizards are also using strength and conditioning software Bridge. Almost daily, players receive personalized workouts through the app and train while watching a video. Some players may need more guidance, so O’Donovan and other staffers put them through workouts conducted over Zoom.
The virtual face-to-face sessions have continued in the kitchen, if necessary. In an effort to keep players away from junk food, Korda, who is in his first year as a chef for Monumental Basketball, has demonstrated how to cook. On Monday, the organization and its hospitality provider, Flik, launched meal service. Players who are still in the area can order a lunch and dinner two to three times a day and pick up the prepared meal at the practice facility.
The Wizards say they’re not trying to be Big Brother, constantly keeping tabs on their players. If a guy needs to be left alone to get his work done, they’ll respect that. Still, they want to tailor assistance to each individual and make sure no player gets left behind.
“The coaches and the medical staff kind of divide up the roster, but they’re poking every player every day: ‘What did you do today? Let me see you,' ” Sheppard said. “The younger guys are the ones you’re concerned about. Older veteran players, I’m not as worried about their professionalism and their ability to [say], ‘Hey, I’ve got to stay in shape because this is my job.’ ”
Besides fitness, the Wizards were concerned about their players’ mental health. Some players have young children and might not be able to stand hearing cartoon theme songs much longer. There are also six international players on the roster who cannot leave the country, and they might be longing for family. Monumental Basketball officials said they planned for these issues; in follow-up conference calls, players and staffers were reminded of team resources.
“We had nutritionists, chefs and mental health [professionals] fully available for our players since Day One,” said Daniel Medina, chief of athlete care and performance.
Anderson and his team of sports psychologists began working with the Monumental Basketball squads this season, and they have been available to players and their families during the hiatus. Also, team chaplains have counseled players who have missed the routine of chapel on game nights and Bible study during road trips, Sheppard said.
While some resources can be deeply personal, the Wizards still want to keep a bond within the team. There are plans for a virtual group yoga class, led by Mariam Moghaddam, an instructor and the wife of Wizards player development coach Kamran Sufi. Sheppard also envisions starting a book club, in which he’ll send specific titles for different players to help them pass the time wisely.
But even online gaming and social media can be useful at times. Sheppard has enjoyed scrolling past the banter about their virtual showdowns or watching the latest TikTok dance routine performed by Beal and his fiancee, Kamiah Adams.
“Bradley and Kamiah are becoming TikTok rock stars,” Sheppard said. “Everybody’s staying connected; guys are commenting on other guys’ posts and talking smack.”
No one knows how long the suspension of the season will last and when teams will be whole again. But even as the web of Wizards crisscrosses the nation, they are finding ways to stick together.
This article first appeared in The Washington Post on March 31, 2020.
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