Sport

Jayson Tatum the latest reminder of COVID's impact on young athletes

Little more than a year ago — though it now seems like a decade — sports and much of the United States shut down due to the threat of COVID-19.

Despite knowing so little about the virus and its potential long-term effects, and influenced in part by elected officials who kept falsely repeating that COVID wasn't much different than the flu, it wasn't long before some sports fans began clamoring for games to return, for their entertainment while we were encouraged to stay home.

It's easy to do that when it's not your body you're putting at risk, you're own long-term health. It's easy to demand others potentially put their loved ones in harm's way for your own entertainment.

And it was all too easy for many to reason it away under the presumption that young athletes seemingly in peak physical condition would simply "get over" COVID if they contracted it, like when the rest of us mortals have to get over it when your GrubHub delivery isn't exactly as you ordered.

But the Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum on Tuesday revealed that he didn't just get over his bout with COVID.

And he's not the first young, elite athlete to suffer longer-term effects from the virus.

Tatum was diagnosed with COVID in January, and told the media after his game-winning three-pointer against the Portland Trail Blazers that he's started using an inhaler before games to help open his lungs, something he never had to do pre-COVID.

"It's a process," the 23-year-old forward said of his recovery. "It takes a long time. I take an inhaler before a game since I tested positive. It's kind of helped with that and opened up my lungs. I never took an inhaler before."

Maybe if you see Tatum averaging a career-high 25.9 points per game this season while being named an All-Star for the second straight season, it's not a big deal. Maybe if you believe that since Tatum earns a lot of money he should just deal with it, because somewhere along the line a segment of people in this country came to believe that a person, especially a Black person, ceases to be a sympathetic figure for pretty much any reason once their paycheck contains some arbitrary number of zeroes. 

But it is a big deal. Tatum's lungs are damaged, and we don't know how long it is until they're fully healed. 

Or if they'll ever be fully healed.

And really, we don't know if rushing back to basketball has helped or hindered his recovery.

Blazers' second-year forward Nassir Little's December bout with COVID included losing 20 pounds in three weeks, sapping him of much of his conditioning and strength. He lost his sense of taste and smell, tried to drink smoothies but would throw them up, and had terrible headaches.

"Just miserable pain," he said in January.

Little has been playing for the Blazers, and in March shot only 37.5% from the field in 12 games — well under his season average of 48.5%.

Orlando's Mo Bamba, diagnosed last June, has only returned to the Magic's lineup on a regular basis for the past three weeks. He left the NBA's bubble early last year, unable to contribute in the playoffs, and wasn't ready until January of this season.

Asia Durr of the New York Liberty told HBO in January that her COVID long effects are so severe that eight months after first testing positive she was still experiencing debilitating symptoms, to the point that even going to the store some days is impossible because she just doesn't have the strength. She missed the 2020 WNBA bubble season.

Durr, who just celebrated her 24th birthday, may never play again, and if she does, she might not return to the form that made her two-time ACC Player of the Year and the No. 2 pick in the 2019 WNBA draft.

The point is, COVID doesn't care if you're young or seemingly perfectly healthy or earn millions playing a game.

In addition to taking the lives it has taken, it has affected hundreds of thousands of people, including an unknown number of high-level amateur and professional athletes, some of whom had few, if any, lingering effects, and others who have had their lives irrevocably impacted. It was always unwise to rush games back when we knew so little about this virus, always shameful to put profits over the health of people, in sports leagues, the NCAA and beyond.

It has become far too easy to dismiss something when it isn't you. But Tatum serves as another reminder of the real-life impact COVID has had on some young, elite athletes, and that they couldn't just "get over it."

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