Eric Smith is the play-by-play voice of the Toronto Raptors on Sportsnet 590 the FAN and the sideline reporter during Sportsnet Raptors television broadcasts.
He was with the team during their five-game Western Conference road trip and travelled with them on the team plane. As such, he, like the rest of the Raptors staff, was tested for COVID-19, a trial that came out negative.
This is a first-hand account from Smith about his experience and why he’s still self-isolating.
Arrival in Salt Lake City
Last Monday I was in Utah, getting set to do the play-by-play of the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz on Sportsnet 590 the FAN. Following the game, I’d be on the red-eye flight home – with the Raptors – heading back to Toronto for the first time in ten days.
My day in Salt Lake City was like many others on the road, especially on a back-to-back. Try to sleep in, go for a walk or workout, get some lunch, do some reading and prep for the broadcast, shower, throw on a suit, and head to the game.
But as I wandered the city that day I do recall bringing a bottle of water with me. And that had less to do with hydration and more to do with the fact that the NBA had already announced – or at least information and internal memos had been reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski – that new safety rules were about to be imposed across the Association in hopes of protecting players and coaches from the spread of the coronavirus.
I knew I’d be out walking around lunch time and I didn’t want to get caught at a salad or sandwich shop without my own drink. I wasn’t going to use a publicly shared soda machine in the midst of a potential outbreak. The germaphobe in me was already kicking into high gear, and the hypochondriac in me had already been carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer in my pocket for years now, anyway.
However, the potential threat wasn’t quite real yet. Or so many of us thought.
Stranger business, but still business as usual
When I arrived at the arena that night, I ran into a couple of the Jazz broadcasters that I know, and I recall joking with them about how we were supposed to properly greet each other in this brave new world. Fist bumps? Elbow taps? Or, as I awkwardly demonstrated, how about foot taps like the old Kid ‘n Play routine?
Prior to the game, at least one routine had already changed: Quin Snyder’s pre-game availability was at a podium (instead of his usual scrum outside the locker room), though Nick Nurse scrummed as usual. One major change that was implemented by both teams: No locker-room media availability for either team.
Other than that, the night was much like any other NBA game I’ve covered over the past 20-plus years.
As the game began, we were well back from the players. The broadcast position is pretty much at centre court, but at the back of the lower level (approximately 25 rows up). At halftime I stayed in my seat, and by the time the game ended and I packed my stuff up, I was heading down the stairs towards the court in an all-but-empty arena.
In the back, near Toronto’s locker room, Nurse, Pascal Siakam, and Kyle Lowry all spoke to the media but I stood just on the outside of their respective scrums – leaning in to listen (no microphone, no phone). Normally Nurse speaks first, outside the room, but the players speak inside after they’ve showered. So that was a new wrinkle, too.
But in the grand scheme of things, any adjustments to the regular way of doing interviews or availabilities was minimal and I wasn’t anticipating any major complications or headaches for future games moving forward. We would all have to adjust until the spread of the coronavirus slowed or ended.
Little did I know when I left the arena that night that I had just worked my last game for the foreseeable future.
Back home at last
As we boarded the plane in Salt Lake City I don’t recall anything standing out. Everyone was tired, as you’d expect.
Tuesday, back home, after little-to-no sleep I got my kid off to school and my wife left for work, and I went to run some errands. That night we spent our first time together in a week and a half having dinner, watching TV and just flopping on the couch as a family before bed.
Wednesday it was much of the same: School, errands, nap, paperwork, dinner, TV and flaking on the couch before bedtime.
But as my kid was getting ready to head upstairs, things got flipped upside down in the NBA.
When all hell broke loose
Word came out that a player from the Jazz had tested positive for the coronavirus and the game between Utah and Oklahoma City was called off right before tip-off. News quickly filtered out that the infected player was Rudy Gobert, and not long after that, late games were being postponed across the league and the Association suddenly announced a cease in operations for the time being.
It was a whirlwind to say the least, but as the NBA and the sports world were reacting to the news, so too was I. Weighing heavily on my mind: Could I have been infected? Did I come in contact with anybody that may have interacted with or touched Gobert? What are the risks for me? But of course I was asking the same questions about my fellow broadcasters and crew, let alone the players, coaches and staff of the Raptors. The entire travelling party for Toronto.
Emails and phone calls began pouring in – not just from colleagues but from family and friends as well. But I didn’t have any answers for them yet. I was still going through all the scenarios in my mind and trying to backtrack and walk through all of my steps and interactions from Monday night.
I didn’t go to bed until nearly 2:00 a.m. that night, but I knew that I was waking up to go get tested for COVID-19. It was later explained to me that given the facts that 1) the Raptors had been potentially exposed to the virus, 2) they’d been in an arena with nearly 20,000 fans, 3) they’d been outside of Canada, and 4) they had been on an airplane, the team and travel group were considered potential “super-spreaders.” Thus, testing was necessary.
What it’s like to be tested for COVID-19
I was tested on Thursday morning. Two large swabs – one at a time – were inserted into and swirled around inside my left nostril – think of your standard sized Q-tip and multiply its length by about two. So the swabbing certainly wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t painful, either. The nurse – wearing a surgical mask as well as a secondary plastic face shield (almost like a welder’s mask) – told me I might sneeze afterwards, but I didn’t. The test may have taken 90 seconds, tops.
After the nurse left, a doctor came in to speak with me. He asked me if I had had any direct contact with Gobert in Utah and asked me to walk him through my time in Salt Lake City and my flight home. Most importantly, he wanted to know if I was experiencing any of the following: Coughing, fever, sore throat, difficulty breathing. I told him that I had not come in contact with Gobert and I was not experiencing any symptoms.
I was told to go home and isolate myself until my test results were in, and at that point I would be given further instruction based on my results and further consultation with public health officials.
Many thoughts racing in my mind
I had already started quarantining myself on Wednesday night as a precaution when the Gobert news broke. By Thursday at about 9:30 a.m., after my swab test, I was at home in isolation, and have been holed up in my bedroom since (my wife and kid have full run of the rest of the house).
While I sat in isolation, I continued to replay things in my mind over and over. Did somebody I talked to interact with Gobert and then pass things on to me? What about Donovan Mitchell, who we found out Thursday had also tested positive? Could I have gotten something from Jack Armstrong because he interviewed Serge Ibaka – who guarded Gobert almost all night – and if Ibaka was sweating all over Jack and then I sat near Jack, could I have gotten it that way?
Plus, as concerned as I was for myself, I was still equally concerned for Jack, Ibaka, my other colleagues, and all of the people that I travel with and had gotten to know. Is anybody healthy? Is anybody sick? How is this going to play out?
A whole bunch of things were firing in my head.
Early Saturday morning I found out my test results were negative. I don’t have the coronavirus. Thankfully, neither did Jack nor Paul Jones, nor any of my friends and colleagues. The entire team/travel party tested negative.
But in spite of the results, I was told to stay in isolation until I spoke with the public health nurse. I was anticipating that call would come at some point on Saturday — however, another 24-plus hours went by.
That only added to my stress and anxiety, even though I knew I was negative and so too was the rest of the team/travel party. Waiting to find out what your next steps may be is not easy, especially when you’re likely not in control of that decision.
On Sunday afternoon I finally spoke with Toronto Public Health. The nurse went over my results again – negative – and asked me a number of questions pertaining to Gobert, Mitchell, where I’d been in Utah, my flight home, my symptoms (if any), and much more.
Following our lengthy chat, the nurse assured me that I was considered low risk. At this point it had been over five days since my potential exposure and I was showing no signs or symptoms and I had a negative test result. I could leave isolation if I chose to and move forward, self-monitoring and keeping a safe distance (six feet) from anyone I may be around.
However, after chatting with my wife (and Public Health), as well as factoring in the idea that I’m a germaphobe/hypochondriac on the best of days, we decided, as a family, that I would stay in isolation this week even though I’m healthy. Why? Simply put, to be sure (or as close to sure) of my family’s health and safety.
Given the reported incubation period for this virus and the fact that some people are carriers in spite of negative test results, I knew the guilt I’d feel if I left my room and suddenly became sick and, thus, got my family sick. I figured if I stay locked in, personally sick or not, they should be fine.
Plus, any travellers who return to Canada are now being told to quarantine and/or isolate for 14 days, so I would be on lockdown anyway. The only difference is I am not roaming the entire house. I am staying confined to one room with the hope that this is keeping my family safer.
I haven’t left my room in nearly a full week. Luckily, I have an ensuite bathroom. But I haven’t been outside or left this 10-by-10 space since Thursday morning; I haven’t hugged my wife or played with my kid in all that time. I’m having Skype or WhatsApp video calls with them while we’re all in the house together.
My only interaction with them – aside from those video chats – is when they deliver food to my door at lunch and dinner. They knock, step back six to eight feet and then wait for me to grab my food – so they can wave or fire up a very quick impromptu dance party – before I close the door again.
But I’m not complaining about my situation. I made this choice. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to keep my family, myself, my community, and my world safe.
As many people smarter than me have already said and written: Our grandparents were called to war, but I’m being called to my bedroom, with a TV and the internet. I’m okay.
So I’ll continue to stay isolated for another week. I’ll keep doing my on-the-spot bathroom jogs (eight-plus kilometres per day thus far), and my family and I will keep syncing up TV shows and movies at the same time on our respective TVs, so we can watch things “together.”
The worst part of isolation isn’t the time apart from family – I can hear them through the floors or shout to them or call them any time. It’s the solo time with my own thoughts and with social media. There’s so much information out there. Whether it’s pro or con, it’s overwhelming, and I’m at the point where I’m not sure what to believe anymore.
What this ordeal has taught me
I’m the furthest thing from an expert on this virus. But I believe that we have to take this pandemic very seriously. It’s maddening to see how cavalier some in Canada and around the world seem to be.
However, I will admit that I may have been guilty of ignoring a serious outbreak back in 2009. In spite of having a pregnant wife for half of 2009, I don’t recall getting too worked up about H1N1. Shame on me for not taking that virus more seriously because, looking back, the numbers (infections and deaths) are staggering.
Yet in 2020, schools, pools, community centres and many stores have closed their doors. Kids sports programs and leagues have stopped. Nearly every major sports league has halted operation as well. And our border is almost entirely shut down. People are being told by the Prime Minister to “stay home.”
All of that didn’t exist in 2009. Not like this.
So, for the time being, stay in. Do your part to help flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus by staying home and away from the general public.
The old adage applies: Better to be safe than sorry.
Time for another bathroom jog!