ATLANTA – Nuggets guard Austin Rivers was asymptomatic when he first tested positive for COVID some three weeks ago.
At 29, healthy and vaccinated, he didn’t know if the symptoms would ever arise. For a few days, it appeared he’d have to quarantine in Orlando, satisfy the NBA’s health and safety protocols and then eventually re-join the Nuggets, whose depth had already been decimated by injuries.
“Then I started getting a little bit of body aches, then you get headaches, next thing you know I’m draining my nose, next thing you know I’m breathing really, really heavy at night,” Rivers told The Denver Post ahead of Friday night’s game against the Hawks, his first with the team since Nov. 29.
“Especially at night, I was really struggling a little bit to where I started getting really nervous and scared,” he said. “And then mentally, it plays on your head. Now that you know you have this and you’re breathing hard, you’re overdoing it. I’m thinking crazy, ‘Is it going to get better, or like, what’s going on here?’”
Rivers sees the NBA grappling with a ghost, trying to get a hold on a season careening off the rails. He sees the same swell of notifications the rest of NBA fans do, the ones detailing which team is the latest to experience an outbreak. Only he’s seeing it from the professional side, and as someone who’s had a scary first-hand experience.
“It’s getting a little bit out of hand in the NBA, to be honest with you,” Rivers said. “I don’t know what we gotta do, whether it’s go back to limiting who’s in the arena, or we gotta test every day. We definitely gotta go back, obviously, to testing every day. I think that’s what we’re doing. The numbers are just getting scary at this point. They’ve got all types of variants.”
A memo sent to teams this week detailed plans for more testing and more mask use for the two weeks around the holidays. This came as a response to a significant surge of positive cases, including outbreaks within the Bulls, Kings, Lakers and Nets.
Rivers, who was with Houston during the 2019-20 playoffs, said nobody wants another Bubble, but he also expressed anxiety about traveling amid various waves and playing in front of 20,000 fans, many unmasked, on a nightly basis.
Inside the Nuggets’ locker room, the conversation, he said, was about trying to be responsible.
“What can we do to minimize chances of spread?” Rivers said. “The problem is, a lot of this is on the onus of what you do when you leave the facility. No matter if we test, or mask, no mask, fans, no fans, at the end of the day, when guys go home, you don’t know what they’re doing, you don’t know whether they’re going out. … You’re gonna stop guys from going out? It’s impossible.”
All Rivers can do is share his experience, which might help persuade the few remaining unvaccinated Nuggets players.
“It was scary,” he said. “COVID’s the real deal. We have a lot of ignorant people out there who believe that this is nothing, but they compare it to the flu, but I’ve never seen the flu do what this is doing.”
Before Friday’s game, perhaps overjoyed at being out of quarantine and back with the team, Rivers couldn’t help himself. At the end of his pre-game warm-up, as hip hop bounced from the speakers at State Farm Arena, Rivers stood on the sidelines dancing, indifferent to whomever was watching.
A few hours later, after he poured in 11 points via a handful of signature drives, it was evident why Rivers was in such a good place despite not having played in a few weeks.
“Having those two weeks off just gave me a chance to get back to being myself and enjoying the game again and having fun,” he said.
Rivers admitted he wasn’t mentally ready at the start of this season, nor was he physically right. The toll from parts of three seasons, crammed inside almost a calendar year, has weighed heavy on numerous players, including Rivers.
But if there was a silver-lining to his COVID case, it was that it gave him the chance to do a personal audit of his play, evaluate his approach and reset his season.
“I wasn’t having the same joy playing basketball,” he said. “This is the best job you can have in the world.”