The N.B.A. will host its All-Star Game on March 7 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, despite the misgivings of the city’s mayor and strong pushback from several top players because of the health risks. In announcing plans for the game and related events on Thursday, the N.B.A. and the players’ union said they would commit $2.5 million to support Covid-19 relief efforts and historically Black colleges and universities.
The league had been criticized in recent weeks for planning to hold the exhibition game during the coronavirus pandemic while also requiring players and staff members to stay at home and avoid all nonessential contact outside basketball activities during the season. This week, the league postponed six games because of a virus outbreak among the San Antonio Spurs and contact tracing among the Charlotte Hornets. More than two dozen games have been postponed this season in connection with the pandemic.
But the league views the All-Star Game as a key outreach to fans around the world, and there is a financial benefit, although the extent of it is unclear. By one estimate, according to a person familiar with the league’s television deal, a traditional slate of All-Star events is worth about $60 million for the league.
“We made a decision beginning last summer that we were going to take the pandemic on in a full-throated way and we were going to attempt to conduct our business to the extent that it was safe and healthy for our players and our staff to the full extent we could,” Silver told ESPN on Thursday afternoon. “All-Star has been a tradition in this league now going back 70 years. We only missed one year over those 70 years and for us, it’s our No. 1 fan engagement event of the year.”
He added: “It seems like no decisions during this pandemic come without uncertainty and come without risk. And this is yet another one of them. But it’s my job to balance all those interests and, ultimately, it feels like the right thing to do to go forward.”
On Tuesday, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta posted a message on Twitter urging fans not to come to the city for the game. Aside from a small group of players’ guests, no spectators will be admitted to the arena, but there are concerns that fans will gather in Atlanta anyway.
“Under normal circumstances we’d be grateful for the opportunity to host the N.B.A. All-Star game, but this isn’t a typical year,” Bottoms wrote. “I’ve shared my concerns w/@NBA & @ATLHawks & agree this is a made-for-TV event only & people shouldn’t travel to Atlanta to party.”
What is traditionally a weekend full of events will be truncated to one day, without the typical parties, fan activities or game for rookies and sophomores. The skills challenge and 3-point shooting contest will take place before the All-Star Game, and the slam dunk contest will occur at halftime. According to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, players must participate in the All-Star Game if selected unless they are excused by Silver. The starters will be announced Thursday, and the reserves will be named on Tuesday.
The league will provide private transportation for players to and from Atlanta. Each player will be allowed to bring up to four guests, but they and the players must all remain at a designated hotel — the N.B.A. is calling it a mini-bubble — when they are not at games or daily testing.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, the N.B.A.’s highest-profile star, said that holding the game would be a “slap in the face” and that he had “zero energy and zero excitement” for it. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks star and the most recent winner of the Most Valuable Player Award, said he agreed. Both are expected to be named All-Star starters.
Other potential selectees have been more open to holding the game.
“I understand both sides,” Julius Randle, a Knicks forward who might become an All-Star for the first time, told The New York Times last week. “And I understand the impact and the benefits it has for the league, if we do have All-Star games. It’s a tough decision. Everything this year has been tough.”
Damian Lillard, who is likely be named to his sixth All-Star team, said recently: “A lot of players are saying, ‘Why are we even having a game?’ And I understand that. If they said, ‘We’re not going to have a game,’ I’d be perfectly fine with it. I just had two newborns, and I would love to spend that extra time at home with my family.”
“But,” he added, “if they say we’re going to do it, I understand that because this is our job, and I understand that with the kind of money we make, you’ve got to make sacrifices.”