Syracuse, N.Y. – Jim Boeheim held his annual media day with Syracuse reporters Thursday afternoon. But instead of standing at a podium in the Melo Center, Boeheim appeared on a Zoom screen with reporters who posed questions for the Orange coach.
The coronavirus, of course, necessitated the altered format. Boeheim called Covid-19 “the most difficult thing in our country in my lifetime.” At 75, the Syracuse basketball coach has seen some things.
He is also advocating for his program’s innovative Covid-19 response and will meet with Onondaga County Health Department officials to formulate a best-practice strategy to play 27 basketball games, even as the pandemic spikes across America.
“I’m confident we can pull it off,” Boeheim said. “It’s not going to be easy. But I think it can be done.”
Boeheim on Thursday revealed Syracuse’s coronavirus strategy and pleaded a case for potential quarantine forgiveness based on the technology his team is using.
SU players, coaches and managers for the past couple weeks are wearing what director of athletic communications Pete Moore described as wristwatch-like devices that measure the proximity of players to each other and to staff. Those devices emit a color-coded beeping sound that alerts the wearer to how close he is to somebody else and issues a warning when wearers get too close (presumably within six feet).
The idea behind the wearables is to chart how much contact players, coaches and staff have with each other during a practice and to establish contact tracing records that could potentially avoid every player, coach or staff member from quarantining because of one positive test.
“What we’re trying to do is keep them spaced out at practice and to try to, for example with me, I’m in front of a player for just two minutes,” Boeheim said. “So, if something happened and I tested positive, I’m not near the players the whole practice.
“We’re trying to show everybody — the county and the state — that we’re not all going to be positive if one of us happens to be.”
The ACC has said it would release new medical guidelines for its winter sports before the first basketball game of the season, scheduled for Nov. 25. An ACC spokesperson earlier this week said to expect those guidelines sometime next week.
Right now, SU is testing its basketball players once a week and will increase testing to three times a week once the season starts, Boeheim said.
Already, college basketball programs are pushing pause buttons on the early-season because of positive tests. New York State requires a 14-day quarantine for close contacts of a person who tests positive. Boeheim said Onondaga County Health Department officials were set to visit the Melo Center Thursday to inspect SU’s set-up. But with cases rising in the community, that meeting was postponed.
Boeheim said SU players or staff can’t “test out” of a quarantine, meaning subsequent negative tests do not allow them to escape the 14-day period. But he is hoping county and state officials see SU’s protocols and the data collected from wearable devices, and determine that one positive test does not necessarily eliminate an entire team from playing.
“We have talked to the county. We are sending them what we’re doing,” Boeheim said. “We have computer chips on each player and each coach that measure how many minutes exactly you’re next to somebody during practice. We have all that. We have all that information. We are going to share that with them. … They will come, I’m sure, as soon as they can. But we’re doing everything we can. Locker rooms are spaced out, cleaned up every day. All that. The court’s cleaned. We’re trying to do everything we can to have a season.”
Here are some of the particulars:
Limiting time between players and coaches: “(Assistant coaches are) about 4-5 minutes next to one player for the whole practice and our managers, we separate completely so they’re not near a player at all. For our players, we don’t play as much man-to-man, we don’t let them do drills together so they’re not together. They’re only together 7-8 minutes, 10 minutes maximum during the practice. And even when they go home, they have to go to their room and use their bathroom and not be in a common area. We’re trying to minimize as much as we can the contact that our players have.”
Masks and more masks: “We have no meetings, no film sessions. The coaches have no meetings. And whenever the coaches are on the court, they wear their masks. Our coaches wear their masks all the time, even in the office. The only time we’re not wearing a mask is if I’m in my office like this (on the Zoom).”
Limiting potential contact: “Even waiting to get on the court, they’re 10 feet away. We have spots where they have to stand so they’re 10 feet away from each other. Even when they do their warmups with their strength and conditioning coach for 10 minutes, they have to be 10 feet away. … We don’t even let them go in the locker room together. They go in the locker room separate, four at a time, five at a time, that’s it.”
Minimizing scrimmaging: “We’re doing little scrimmaging. We play zone so we don’t have as much contact with one particular player.”
Boeheim said the team will not have a communal Thanksgiving dinner like it usually does. Instead, players likely will pick up prepared food and bring it back to their rooms.
The SU staff and players have been working together for four months, and “knock on wood, we’ve had great success,” Boeheim said.
The Orange coach believes that all the planning, all the precautions will lessen – though not completely eliminate – a team member’s chances of catching Covid-19. Boeheim is trying as much as he can, he said, to live his life (he’s going to restaurants) and in the process, help his team realize its ambition to play a 2020-21 college basketball season.
“The one thing I’ve learned in my life is you don’t sit still, you don’t give up and you don’t quit,” he said. “I’m against that 100 percent and I see that out there today. I don’t think you give up. I think you try to work through it, establish protocols to try to keep yourself healthy, your players healthy. But you don’t sit home.
“If that’s the answer, I think we’re in trouble in our country. I think we have to find a way to work through this, taking all the precautions we can: Wear our masks, washing our hands, keeping social distance. But we can’t give up.”