Coronavirus has stopped basketball across America

Basketball rims have been removed or covered on courts around the country to deter public gatherings. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

IN THE FRONT YARD of Jamal Crawford's Seattle-area home is a concrete half court with a nothing-special hoop that had, for a period of months that stretched into years, remained reserved for a singular purpose: It had been lowered from the regulation 10 feet to 6 feet so that the 19-year NBA veteran's 9-year-old son, JJ, could dunk.

"We never thought we'd actually be getting up real shots on it," Crawford says. When it came to getting up real shots and training, Crawford and his son would head to local gyms and community centers, passing by their 6-foot hoop along the way.

But in February, tragedy struck the area. Crawford's home state became the epicenter for the coronavirus that would soon ravage the nation, with the first outbreak in the United States occurring in nearby Kirkland, Washington, where at least 35 residents of a nursing home died and dozens of others fell ill. Briefings from officials filled the airwaves. Nonessential businesses were closing their doors, and public gatherings were limited.

The NBA would suspend its season indefinitely a month later, but the local playground courts remained, the city parks that promised another game.

"It gave you a toughness," Crawford says. "You learn so much shooting on double rims or shooting on courts that are uneven. I actually had an outdoor court named after me in Seattle because I was going there so much."

Though this season was the first time he was not on an NBA roster, Crawford could be found in gyms around his hometown, playing in tournaments he organized or dominating an open run much like he has throughout his career.

"For a lot of guys, I know for me especially, that's where I honed my skill," he says.

On March 23, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-home order to enforce social distancing.

"If you want to have parties on the beach or play pickup basketball at the park or have sleepovers, these are no longer allowed for at least a couple of weeks," Inslee said in a proclamation.

Labor negotiations stopped pro basketball in 1998 and 2011, World War II canceled international hoops, but the sport always has persisted on the playground. And as the COVID-19 pandemic swelled, the normalcy of the community court also began to evaporate. Even if they sat empty, the knowledge that courts were available offered some sense of comfort.

"You could go out there by yourself, as long as you had a ball," Crawford says. "You just [needed] a ball and a rim."

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PARKS AND BASKETBALL courts are being closed in major cities across the country. Rims are being disabled -- chained shut, boarded up or removed altogether.

It's happening at city parks in Fort Worth, San Diego, Memphis, New Orleans and Louisville.

"I hate to say it. I'm sorry about it," Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said at a press briefing on March 26. "But your life's more important than the next pickup game."

It's happening in basketball-crazed Indiana. "The patterns of use we are seeing in our parks concerns me greatly," said Linda Broadfoot, the director of Indy Parks and Recreation, in a news release announcing the closures.

It's happening in Denver. It's happening in Baltimore, where last weekend, 13 employees working about 10 hours each day removed about 200 rims on 98 city basketball courts, according to Whitney Clemmons Brown, public relations officer for Baltimore City Recreation and Parks. The rims are coming down in Philadelphia, where as of March 30 they've been removed at 27 sites, according to Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for Philadelphia Parks & Recreation.

In Chicago, rims remain -- the Chicago Park District has 205 parks with a total of 779 backboards and rims -- but "the district is constantly monitoring activity in our parks and would take such action to help enforce social distancing if necessary," Chicago Parks District communications director Michele Lemons wrote in an email.

The Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks announced on March 28 that "all indoor & outdoor sport amenities are closed. This includes all skate parks, tennis courts, playgrounds, baseball fields, turf & natural soccer fields, and basketball courts." The closures include the famous beachside basketball courts in Venice. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia also announced the closure of the city's public basketball courts.

In New York City, as of March 30, hoops at 138 sites -- accounting for roughly 20% of parks citywide -- had been removed after Parks and Recreation staff, NYPD and elected officials observed that too many people were not adhering to social distancing.

"New York City is a proud basketball town, and we would never remove hoops unless absolutely necessary," NYC Parks commissioner Mitchell Silver said in a statement. "Responsive to the state's ban on gatherings and group play, the city urged New Yorkers to use their common sense and mandated social distancing. As people continued to disregard guidelines, we have strategically removed hoops at 138 sites across the city and will continue to do so as needed."

The affected courts include the famous Rucker Park in Harlem, the West Fourth Street Courts in Greenwich Village and the McCarren courts in Brooklyn.

And in Seattle, the city is taking measures at parks where they've seen persistent congregating, including closing off parking lots, having staff and police remind people of the guidelines and posting additional signage, according to Scott Thomsen, a spokesperson working on behalf of the city's Parks and Recreation department.

Dozens of Seattle courts remain open for solo play, Thomsen added, but boards have been placed above hoops at three parks where pickup games continued to be observed.

STEVE WRIGHT IS the third-year Parks and Recreation director for the city of Houston, and in the final week of March, staffers had fanned out across the city to close all park amenities. They put up signs -- about 800, he estimated -- over a three-day span across the nearly 380 parks and playgrounds. But signage only went so far, and according to staff reports and eyewitness accounts, people were still gathering.

"People want to go outside," Wright said. "I don't fault them for that."

Caution tape had even been put up around some parks to reinforce guidelines. City staffers had been stationed to remind people of the rules. But many of these parks aren't fenced off, and people came and went as they pleased.

At around 8:30 a.m. local time on March 30, after hearing of more activity than had occurred over the weekend, Wright contacted Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and said the immediate removal of basketball rims was needed. Turner quickly authorized the dismantling.

"It's definitely crazy," said Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox, who grew up just outside of Houston, in Katy, Texas.

As someone who loves the game, he is heartened by the fact that people still want to play. But he also realizes the severity of the moment.

"It wouldn't have stopped if they didn't take the rims down," Fox said. "People want to continue to play, but you have to think about the safety of others, the safety of people's kids and the elderly. I don't think it's a bad idea. It shows how important the game of basketball is to people that they're still trying to find a way to play. But it should always be safety first."

Wright didn't come to this recommendation lightly. "We know basketball and all sports are interwoven to the fabric of most Houstonians," he said. There's the Houston Rockets and their NBA titles in the mid-1990s, Hakeem the Dream, the Phi Slama Jama Houston Cougars teams in the 1980s. But the rims had to come down. Wright felt it was necessary, but it also was logistically tricky.

"Most of our basketball rims are actually welded on," Wright said. Some were bolted in at first but were getting stolen. There are 180 outdoor basketball courts at 142 parks locations throughout the city. There are 492 goals on these courts. Ten people in teams of two were needed to either remove the hoops if not welded or to chain the rim closed to prevent play.

Counting payroll and supplies, the approximate cost was between $30,000 and $40,000 to complete the task. Many of the rims were worn and needed to be replaced. It's perhaps the only bright side Wright could think of.

CRAWFORD HASN'T SEEN the rims come down, hasn't seen the photos of them being boarded up with two-by-fours or chained shut.

"I'm not sure I want to see them," he says. "That would be heartbreaking, because the playground is the soul of the game."

There's pain and sadness in his voice. That's not to say that Crawford doesn't agree with social distancing or any measures being taken right now. "It's just hard," he says, "but I understand you have to do it."

And he and his family have been. Since the NBA suspended its season, Crawford, his wife and three children -- his son and two daughters, ages 7 and 3 -- have remained home.

"Everybody's safe and everybody's bunkered in," he says.

They're settled in their routine. The children do online school from 9 to 3, with their teachers sending videos and assignments. There is a break for recess. In the afternoons, there is exercise -- jump-rope, pushups. It's a tight operation.

"We've got it dialed in," he says, and he credits his wife, calling her "the MVP of the house."

"When this is all finished, when we work through all this, we'll appreciate those moments a little more," he says. Which brings him back to the hoop out front, the one they never really used, save for his son dunking.

As recently as 2½ weeks ago, leading up to the governor's stay-at-home order, they were still going to gyms. Then those closed. Then they turned to the parks; then those closed too. The signage made it clear: Stay home, stay safe.

"There's no playbook or anything for it," Crawford says. "We just kind of have to learn on the fly and help each other."

Their once-neglected hoop has come in handy, he says. They've raised it back to 10 feet. And for an hour after school in the afternoons now, Crawford is out there with his son. They start with free throws, then shots from various spots around the court, then floaters and finishes at the rim. They work on pick-and-rolls and ballhandling.

"Playing outside," he says, "was always something special."