Kentucky’s 2020-21 basketball season is set to tip off in one month. For that one month, John Calipari feels good about his team avoiding potential COVID-19 setbacks; past that, well, fingers crossed.
“We don’t run this; the virus runs us,” Calipari said in a preseason Zoom today. “Let me start by telling you, we are in a bubble. So, the bubble being our lodge, single room and their own bath. Cook/chef in the building. They eat there. They walk across the parking lot into the practice facility, which there is no one even in the offices in that building yet, so they’re in there by themselves. Other parts of the building have some other teams but we never cross paths. We never see each other. We’re in a bubble. I’m feeling very comfortable to the 25th of November.”
Calipari said his players are wearing tracing chips like the ones being used in college football in the NFL. Through that technology, they’ve determined that the risk for transmission in practice is relatively low, especially with mask usage and social distancing measures.
“Unless you’re playing against somebody a lot, you’re not going to be in his space more than 15 minutes. Six feet. And as coaches, managers, we’re not near the players five minutes in a practice, three minutes in a practice. So, what we’ve mitigated by wearing the chips, if it’s the players and they’re staying in the bubble, they should be fine. We leave the bubble to go home, managers, coaches — some of the managers are in the lodge — but come back, we’re not in their — We’ve got masks on and we’re not close enough to them. So feel good until the 25th. The 25th, I don’t know how this thing’s going to play out.”
Once the season begins and the teams starts traveling, the bubble is essentially burst. In the event that a player tests positive, the team will quarantine for 14 days. Calipari hopes that those who don’t show symptoms will be able to condition to maintain their physical and mental health.
“I will tell you, if one of our kids is positive, and it’s traced, we’re out 14 days. What we’re trying to do is say, if they have no symptoms in that 14-day period, we have to make conditioning available to them away from our team. If it’s tracing three or four, they should be able to condition. They have no symptoms. Away from our team. Sanitize the building. They go back, they’re away, but they should be able to condition, not stay in a room.
“Here’s what we’re not taking in to account. Hardened criminals are not thrown in jail to where they can’t come out a room for 14 days. They’re just not. So, four walls for 14 days. Food’s delivered. Knock on the door. Wait 10 seconds, alright now open the door and take your food. We’ve got to figure that part of it out for all these players. But, we’re in the same boat as any other school. We had at one point traced to a bunch of our guys. None of them ended up having it. I think we’ve gone maybe five to six weeks where we’ve been good but we’re in a bubble. We should be good. The 25th, it changes.”
Due to the pandemic, Calipari hasn’t been able to have the team over to his house as often as he’d like, outside of one outdoor watch party during the NBA Playoffs; however, there is plenty of team bonding occurring, especially since the players are now allowed in the lounge at the practice facility. Calipari pointed to the NBA bubble, specifically the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat, as an example of how his team can use this time to their advantage.
“The practice facility has an unbelievable lounge and locker room. We’re not in the locker room right now. We’re not using the hot and cold tubs in the locker room but we’re finally, last week, let them in the lounge area but the chairs are six, seven feet away, only ten can go in because of the space. It’s only open so many times but here’s what I would say. What happened in the NBA bubble, teams could go their own way, do their own thing, I’m golfing, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, or teams could come together and have a breakfast every morning with their team. Leave the phones in the room. Let’s just do this. They could have a cornhole tournament, which one of the teams did or you can go your own separate ways, and you’re mad you’re here or you could come together at nights and do stuff together as a team. The two best teams in the NBA were like that. The two best teams, the two last teams standing. My thing to my team is, through all this, every team is going through this. How do we become the best as players and staff at handling this? So we’re the best at handling this environment?
“One, we’re in a bubble. Most teams are not. Their team is in apartments, there are different places around which means it’s a little harder to keep track because a kid does this, he has somebody in his room, he doesn’t know the person, the person gives it to him and his roommates and you trace back and you’ve got 12 guys out. We’re hoping we can mitigate that by how we are, and now all I’m talking about — it can’t be small groups. Those are the sneakies. They want to go do their thing with two or three guys because they can go and no one will tell and — ain’t no sneakies now. We’ve all got to be in this together. We all are affecting everybody’s lives. Let’s do this. So, a little bit harder but we are working to be the absolute best at dealing with this environment.”
As for Calipari himself, he said that because recruiting is locked down due to the pandemic, he’s feeling fresher than ever. Outside of some trips to his beach home in New Jersey, he’s hunkered down in his house in Lexington and relishing the chance to focus on his squad and his squad only.
“I haven’t traveled, so when you’re looking, saying, ‘Wow, he looks fresh,’ yeah. I would have been traveling four days a week, maybe five coming back to school visits where I’m going all weekend, entertaining, having families, having practices and they leave and I go back on the road three days and I’m in five cities and I’m in five homes. I’m giving our in-home recruiting. I haven’t done any of that. I’ve done some Zoom stuff. I’m fresher, I feel way better coaching and now I’m saying we should do it this all the time.”
Earlier today, ESPN canceled all of its events in the Orlando bubble, throwing the non-conference schedule into doubt. Like Calipari said, until there’s a vaccine, the virus is running us, so in hopes of having a 2020-21 season — which he’s very, very excited about — he remains vigilant in his practices and is calling on others to do the same.
“At 55 [years old], I think I’ll be okay but I will tell you that I’m just doing all the precautions. I wear the mask, I wash my hands. I’ll put [the mask] down sometimes to coach but I’m 15 feet away. I put it back up. I’ll be honest with you, I’m not — I’ve gone to dinner four times but it’s been outdoors so I’m not going to sit inside a restaurant and eat, just me, right now. I don’t have any underlying [conditions] so I’m not worried about it.
“Here’s the biggest thing. Again, with my team, I may worry about it more on the 25th or if we start traveling home and away games, that becomes where you really gotta be careful. I haven’t spent much time. I haven’t stepped away. When they let us on the court with our kids, I’ve been out there every moment. This is time for that leadership but the leadership isn’t, act like this isn’t happening. No, it’s happening. And it’s spiking. Unless numbers are lying to us, it is spiking. Is it going to continue to spike? If people don’t wear masks and act like this is nothing, yeah, it’s going to. So, let’s hope that we get it under control before we start playing the 25th.”