CJ McCollum, a wonderful basketball player and undervalued NBA thought leader, is now the most reasonable player voice to emerge during the league’s pandemic shutdown. He doesn’t have the influence of LeBron James, but on this matter, he should. While James has spent the past two months over-communicating his desire to return and barking down suggestions to the contrary, McCollum’s take is measured, real and absolutely critical to the conversation.

He is concerned, fidgety. He wants to play, perhaps as much as James. But he is willing to admit that want is different from need, that eagerness is different from carelessness. He’s not too proud to be a human and a star.

“I am worried like the rest of the world,” the Portland Trail Blazers guard told Yahoo Sports.

McCollum expressed his views as the NBA starts the process of getting back to work. As states begin to relax stay-at-home restrictions, the league is allowing teams to open their facilities under strict guidelines. Three teams plan to turn on the lights Friday, all of them careful to send the message that any workouts are voluntary. Other teams are waiting for their governors to say it’s safe. Slowly, optimism is building that the 2019-20 season could be completed in some form.

But this obsession over the return of all the major sports leagues focuses too much on the immense effort, complicated logistics and evolving plans to play and often omits the most basic human element: How do the athletes really feel about playing? Not just the likes of James and Mike Trout and Tom Brady, but the rank-and-file players in every sport who are weighing just as much, and probably more, when it comes to the physical, mental and financial implications of trying to come back and entertain as soon as possible?

Buried in the longing for some semblance of sports normalcy is a point we should all agree upon: It’s OK if these athletes don’t have it in them to play just yet. It’s OK if they need considerable reassurance and greater clarity about their league’s safety precautions and the risks of trying to compete while the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

There’s this assumption that, because the players are young and physically fit, they’ll be down for whatever. Surely, most people aren’t as coldhearted and foolish as Mike Gundy, the Oklahoma State football coach/cartoon villain, in the way they think. But if you’re honest, there’s a strand of dismissiveness somewhere in your mind. It’ll be fine. They’re athletes, tough guys, meta-humans, right?

Throughout sports, there have been numerous reports — or intentional information leaks — about creative plans to get back to action. There doesn’t seem to be enough conversation with the entire workforce, however. It’s good that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBA Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts arranged a Friday call to give all players an open forum. It needs to happen in the NHL and MLB, too. And if multiple conference calls are required over several weeks, so be it.

The comfort of the players is essential to giving these ambitious plans the best chance of working. Their input is essential to keeping grand ideas from being crazy and embarrassing upon implementation. The decision whether to proceed or cancel is getting closer, particularly for the NBA and NHL, and the time has come to bring the conversation from private committees to the entire league. A more collaborative effort is both necessary and worthwhile.

Silver seems to get that. On the other end, I’m not sure where exactly MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stands. The baseball conversation has been full of cockamamie considerations and players rolling their eyes. The league reportedly will submit a plan to restart the season next week, possibly beginning its process of negotiation and resolution.

My concern, thinking about it from the players’ view, is that one of these leagues soon will be primed to resume, only to receive pushback from the players that turns into public backlash against the athletes. So far, they have been treated, at best, like machines during this conversation. The attention has been on league officials, television executives and lost revenue. Health experts have been included to provide a realistic and human side. But it has left the impression that the players are just waiting by their phones to receive a “Let’s go!” text from their coaches or managers. The truth is, you can’t just turn them from off to on.

As business partners who also stand to lose significant money, their voice matters, too. Yet for all the rehearsed words the commissioners utter about safety being a priority, they are having to think so broadly and react so quickly to plan for the unknown that it’s impossible for them to feel the pulse of the players.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an independent thinker who always has been player-centric in his approach, put it all in the proper context during an ESPN Radio interview.

“If you’re a player, who do you trust with your life?” Cuban said during the “Freddie and Fitzsimmons Show.” “If you’re a coach or a trainer, or anybody for that matter, that’s essential personal for getting something back together, do you trust the hotel that we’re going to stay at to keep everything safe — the technology they’re using, the protocols they’re using?

“Who do you trust with your life? That’s a big question to ask somebody, but we all make decisions like that ever day. Do you stay in? Do you go out? What do you do? Where do you go for your groceries? All of these things, how do you do it?”

Cuban isn’t ready to open the Mavericks’ facility. And that’s OK. Making money and preparing for a playoff run — if, God willing, the stars align for the NBA to resume — isn’t as important to him as meticulously planning for the safety of the people in his organization.

There’s a common belief in sports. It goes something like this: Everybody wants to win; everybody isn’t willing to do what it takes to win. We tend to draw a line and define competitiveness in terms of who wants to win and who burns to win.

This time, it’s different. Everybody wants to play. Everybody isn’t willing to do what it takes to play. Not until we know more about this virus and the covid-19 disease it can cause. Not until testing is easily accessible. Right now, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in every decision. If that creates a level of fear and discomfort in players that ruins the chance of an expedited sports return, well, that’s life in the time of coronavirus.

“We’ve got to figure out a balance between what’s safe and what’s forcing it,” McCollum said.

And he’s just taking about going back to practice.

If we’re being sensible, we seem a lot closer to the beginning of this sports lockdown than to the end.


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