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What the story of Chris Paul entering the NBA's COVID-19 protocols tells us about media

The Phoenix Suns player entered COVID health and safety protocols before the Western Conference Finals. Here's how the story broke and why it matters.

The Chris Paul story is a big one, obviously. Any time a star player on a hot team is out for an undetermined amount of time, it’s news.

It’s also instructive, a good example of the contemporary news cycle. So far, the story about the Phoenix Suns guard followed the pattern many stories do. 

It's important to step back from time to time, so that we keep in mind where stories come from, what informs, them, how reliable sources are — and aren't. It's not as visceral a process as seeing how the sausage gets made, as the saying goes. But it is sort of art as it happens, an in-the-moment process that changes substantially as it chugs along.

Paul has been placed under the NBA’s health and safety protocols, reportedly for testing positive for COVID-19.

“Reportedly” is doing a lot of work there, as it always does. It's a more complex word that it may seem. "Reportedly" sounds like the news is official without really meaning that. It's an acknowledgement that you haven't verified the information but are relying on other reputable sources.

The Chris Paul coronavirus story broke on Twitter

The news broke Wednesday — on Twitter, of course. It’s not just a social media platform. It’s the place to turn when you want to get something out there first and fast. There’s a reason Donald Trump used it so often, back when he was allowed to.

In this case it was Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, tweeting at 5:38 a.m. Arizona time that, “Phoenix Suns All-NBA guard Chris Paul has entered COVID-19 health and safety protocols and is sidelined for an indefinite period of time, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium."

Boom. After leading the Suns into the Western Conference Finals and playing as well (or better) than anyone while doing so, this was a nightmare.

The party’s over, Cinderella. It was fun while it lasted.

Well, maybe. The story hasn’t ended. But that's kind of how it felt. It was surreal — that early in the morning, and a scroll down the timeline still crowded with mentions of Paul’s selection to the All-NBA second team on Tuesday. That’s cruel.

Paul has a history of playoff disappointment. But this? No way.

Way.

Why is Chris Paul under COVID-19 protocols?
Chris Paul #3 of the Phoenix Suns directs the offense in the first half in Game Three of the Western Conference second-round playoff series at Ball Arena on June 11, 2021 in Denver, Colorado.  (Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Steadily people caught on and began reacting. Soon ESPN also confirmed that Paul was under the protocols. This was happening. But why? How?

The NBA is always rife with conspiracy theories. (Having a referee conspire to fix games didn’t help.) It took about 10 seconds for those to start showing up, and they continued all day. A difference now is that, after the last five years of politics on through the Arizona audit of the 2020 election, conspiracy theories are treated by some people as just another stop on the news cycle. Though in fairness most of the Paul ones were more comical than serious.

One tweet included a picture of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on a cellphone, and said, “Yeah, bring back Covid, we can’t let Chris Paul win a championship.”

Questions arose. What, exactly, had happened? Had Paul tested positive, or just come into contact with someone who had?

And the big one: Was he vaccinated?

Some accused him of being anti-vax, though there is no evidence that he is. That’s not surprising, though — like any story, this one served as a springboard for half-baked political proselytizing.

Clay Travis — formerly a right-wing sports-talk personality who has managed to parlay his particular brand of inanity into being one of the replacements for Rush Limbaugh — could not resist the opportunity.

“Chris Paul is in covid protocol now,” he tweeted. “Why are leagues still sticking to this absurd cosmetic theater? None of the players are in any danger.”

No?

Jalen Rose, the former player turned analyst, appeared on the ESPN show “Get Up” and mentioned, somewhat casually, that Paul was vaccinated. John Gambadoro, a sports-talk host for Arizona Sports 98.7, tweeted that it was his “understanding” that Paul was vaccinated.

Then, at 9:17 a.m., Gambadoro tweeted, “Chris Paul did have a positive test.”

The biggest unanswered Chris Paul questions

And that was that. Gambadoro, who is dialed in with the Suns, didn’t say how he knew, or where he got the information. But it was enough for other media outlets to report that Paul had reportedly — there’s that word again — tested positive for COVID-19.

When the NBA and National Basketball Players Association released their weekly testing results Wednesday, "one new player has returned a confirmed positive test." And the Suns are the only team to confirm that a player has been placed under protocols. That's not 100% confirmation, but you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to at least suspect what's going on here.

Later Wednesday morning the Suns issued a brief release: “Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul is currently out due to health and safety protocols. The next update on his status will be provided on Saturday, June 19.”

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The Suns had a media availability with Coach Monty Williams after Wednesday’s practice; of course he didn’t go into many specifics. The Suns, as Paul's employer, are barred by federal law from disclosing specific information about his health.

Then the story entered the trickiest part of the cycle: speculation. There was some before the Suns’ confirmation, yes, but the news came fast enough to keep things moving along.

The big question is how many games in the Western Conference Finals Paul could miss, if any. Another one is how Paul tested positive, particularly if he’s vaccinated. The Suns won’t talk about it again until Saturday. Some information may well leak before then, but it leaves a lot of time for people to spout their theories about what they think happened.

It’s something cable TV news has conditioned us to expect. Every story stalls at some point. But social media and 24-hour news channels are alike in that they have to keep people coming back for more. We don’t have new information, but let’s talk about it anyway.

That’s what we’re used to. And that’s what we’re going to get until the facts come out. 

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk. Subscribe to the weekly movies newsletter.

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