Imhotep coach Andre Noble (above, 2017) is looking forward to getting back to basketball, even with restrictions on practices and games. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Christy Selagy (@ChristySelagy)
Every basketball program in the country has had the same question since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down operations last March: “When will we be able to play again?”
After six months of planning, the Philadelphia Public League finally has its answer: Feb. 9.
Well, sort of. The season is scheduled to start that day, but there are still plenty of questions.
The league was cleared to begin team practices this Monday, but some teams may not be able to hold all of the PIAA-required 10 practices prior to Feb. 9, which would push back their start date.
“We’ve had to adjust what team practices are based on the Health Department’s guidelines,” said Andre Noble, head coach of Imhotep Charter. “Teams in our league are at different points in meeting the team practice requirement, so some of us are a little further than others, some of us are just getting off the ground.”
Since June, a group of league coaches have met weekly to craft a return to play plan. They decided early on that, based on Governor Tom Wolf’s recommendation of no sports until the end of the year, they couldn’t play until 2021.
The original plan was to begin practices in December and start the season in early January. Additional health and safety protocols from the city prevented that, so the coaches switched course.
“At one point we had five different models for return to play in-person,” Constitution head coach Rob Moore said. “Obviously, we were going to start at the earliest possible time once we were cleared by the city.”
Those five models examined start dates from January to later in spring. The Public League has more than 50 teams. The School District of Philadelphia, which comprises the majority of the league, is fully remote, so most coaches weren’t physically seeing their players. There were a lot of moving parts.
Still, it was easy enough to adjust the schedule as the season kept getting pushed off, according to Moore. Games were scheduled to start on Jan. 4 in the initial plan, so it was just a matter of pushing everything back until they got the approval they needed.
That opportunity came last Friday when coaches from the Public League and the Philadelphia Catholic League met with Dr. Thomas Farley, Health Commissioner for the city, and his staff to discuss a return to play. On Monday, they were cleared to start practicing and, once PIAA requirements have been completed, playing.
The regular season is slated to run from Feb. 9 to March 11. Then, districts and playoffs.
So, what will the games look like? Everyone--players, coaches, referees--is required to wear a mask. Chairs on the sidelines will be socially distanced. No spectators allowed. Contact tracing when needed. Moore is even creating boxes for each player to keep their water, extra mask, towel, and hand sanitizer to avoid accidental sharing.
What practices will look like isn’t nearly as clear. Some teams are still working out where and how they can get into a gym.
“Things are changing every day,” Robeson head coach Rob Powlen said in a text message Monday. “We haven’t been able to get in the gym yet. It’s all very confusing right now.”
‘Confusing’ may be the best word to summarize the situation for everyone. Will any teams have to sit out the season? What teams will be eligible to play on Feb. 9?
Last week, teams were told they could start officially conditioning outside, which would count toward the required number of practices. Between the conditioning and team practices, Moore expects his team will complete the required number of practices this week.
Constitution coach Rob Moore (above, 2017) paid to rent a gym so his players could prepare for the season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Of course, in order to hold those indoor practices, you need a gym, and not every team has easy, immediate access to that. In the past, Constitution used other schools’ gyms for practices. That’s not an option now.
“Everybody will be fine next Monday because the rec centers will open up,” Moore said “If you’re at a school like Abraham Lincoln or West Philly High and your building has been cleared, they can actually start [this Tuesday]. I don’t have that. I don’t have a gym, so I’m paying out of pocket to rent a gym for the rest of the week so that at least gives my kids the practices they need to be able to start playing.”
Practices will look different for everyone, and circumstances can change on a moment’s notice. One thing the league does know, though, is that they want to be as safe as possible.
“There is still an expectation that we are limiting the amount of contact in practice, the amount of scrimmaging in practice,” Noble said. “Those things are limited. [The Health Department has] not restricted them totally, but did request that our coaches limit it, just to have that space. And then making sure there’s a greater focus on cardio and some skills and drills with some mitigation strategies, social distancing.”
When pre-season practices have been so limited, how will teams perform when they take the court for their first game in nearly 11 months? Sure, many of the players will be familiar with their coaches’ offensive and defensive schemes from previous seasons, but the limited practices and shortened schedule don’t provide much of a chance to get reacclimated.
The upside is that it’s more or less a level playing field--some teams began voluntary conditioning as early as November, but no one one has had the typical preseason preparation.
“We’re just going to go out there and try to have fun,” Moore said. “We know it’s not going to look the best and that’s not my expectation. My expectation is to have kids out there having fun, working on their mental health and their physical health and getting them involved in something.”
There will still be a focus on winning, developing players, and giving kids opportunities to get film for their college recruitment process, but no one expects this will look like a ‘normal’ season. That was never going to be the case.
“I just want our people to have an opportunity … to play,” Noble said. “I’ve noticed already as we’ve gotten closer and closer to play, [the players] are way more engaged with what they have to do academically... I just feel like it’s been a hope for our young people who had to give up basketball and obviously want to play... just getting a sense of normalcy again.”