Philadelphia 76ers teammates Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were ruled out of the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday after being flagged by coronavirus contact tracing, prompting some players to question again why the exhibition was being played during a pandemic.
The 76ers and the NBA learned of the situation with Embiid and Simmons — which stemmed from getting haircuts — on Saturday night and made the decision Sunday morning that neither could play about nine hours before the scheduled tipoff.
The game in Atlanta went forward as scheduled.
“It's just an unfortunate time in the world where our health and safety should be at the front of the helm," All-Star Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers said Sunday from Atlanta, several hours before the game. “I personally didn't agree with the game but, you know, it is what it is."
A person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press that Embiid and Simmons have both tested negative for COVID-19, and that their barber has tested positive for it. Both players saw the barber a day or two before flying to Atlanta, according to the person who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity Sunday because those details were not released publicly.
“It's kind of messed up," Washington All-Star Bradley Beal said. “It's unfortunate."
Embiid would have been a starter for Team Durant, which was coached by Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers. Simmons would have been a reserve for Team LeBron. New Orleans’ Zion Williamson started in Embiid’s place, and both teams had 11 players on the active rosters instead of the usual 12.
Embiid and Simmons were in Atlanta, though were permitted to leave later Sunday. The NBA was providing private flights for all players to and from the All-Star Game.
A number of players — All-Star captain LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers among them — openly wondered in recent weeks why the game was being played. Sunday's news provided a reminder of why those concerns seemed valid.
“Obviously, I love our league and I love playing the game of basketball at the highest level and doing what I love to do," James said. “But I just think, under the circumstances and what we're going through still with the pandemic and everything with the season, I just thought we could have looked at it a little bit differently. ... And I hate the fact that Joel and Ben will not be able to play today."
The league and the National Basketball Players Association went ahead with plans for the game for multiple reasons, including because it will pay tribute to historically Black institutions and generate at least $3 million for scholarship funds that aid Black students.
“Throughout this pandemic, we’ve sought to find the right balance between the health and safety of our players, the community that’s involved in producing NBA basketball, and of course our fans, along with the economic interests as well of our community," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday in his annual All-Star address. “Add into that social justice issues. ... Again, we feel we’ve struck the appropriate balance here, looking out for the interests of everyone involved."
The collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players also stipulates that the game be played, and Silver has said multiple times in recent weeks that millions of fans around the globe want to see the game happen.
“I don't want to say we didn't have a choice, but it's in our CBA and our CBA says there has to be an All-Star Game every year," Beal said. “There's a lot of language in there that can kind of get ugly if we didn't necessarily come down and go through with the All-Star Game. There's still guys reserved about it, I'm sure. I'm still reserved about it."
There have been 31 NBA games this season postponed because at least one team would not have enough players eligible to play due to virus-related reasons, including positive tests and contact tracing situations.
In past cases where contact tracing has detected an issue that was eventually confirmed as a positive case, players have typically had to sit for a week. That means Embiid and Simmons potentially could miss at least two games; Philadelphia, which has the best record in the Eastern Conference, opens its second-half schedule with games at Chicago on Thursday and at Washington on Friday.
No other All-Stars or members of the 76ers' coaching staff in Atlanta were affected, because they “were not exposed to the individual in Philadelphia," the NBA said.
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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