Raptors’ VanVleet says guilt associated with COVID-19 is unfair

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Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet has been vocal for months about the blame laid on NBA players and others who catch COVID-19.

The truth to his words mean even more now that he’s been sick himself.

On a night that saw four Raptors cleared to return to practice, VanVleet confirmed he tested positive for COVID-19, and suffered symptoms he called “rough.”

On a lengthy Zoom availability Tuesday night, he reiterated his thoughts about unfair blame around the global pandemic, and singled out one report that pointed fingers at Raptors coaches, claiming they weren’t following mask protocol.

“It’s just a lot that comes with the blame. It’s such a heavy illness and how it’s affected our world in the last 12 months, that there comes a blame (with it), like it’s anybody’s fault,” VanVleet said. “But once you get it, you understand: Like, I don’t know where I got it from. . . the doctors don’t know.

“People sitting at home or trying to figure it out from afar, putting unrealistic thoughts and blame on people, that was a little bit disappointing. It’s a tricky thing because the first thing you think of is: Well, how did you get it? Well, I don’t know, I’ve been following every rule since the rules came out.”

VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw rejoined practice in Detroit on Tuesday, after being sidelined for health and safety protocols for nearly two weeks. OG Anunoby travelled to Detroit, but isn’t cleared to return yet.

VanVleet isolated in a hotel room away from his partner and their two young kids. He said it’s an experience he won’t soon forget, suffering from a sore back, sore eyes, body aches, and a headache.

“Definitely nothing like anything I’ve ever had. I could feel that it was something different, I could feel the sickness, I could just feel it in me,” he said.

He had two bad days before he started to feel better, but is still “taking baby steps” in his recovery, and doesn’t know whether he’ll be ready to play Wednesday.

“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” he said. “I’m here, I’m alive, I’m breathing. I know there are a lot of people that didn’t make it through COVID. My thoughts and heart are with the families and people that have been affected by this thing that weren’t as fortunate as I am.”

VanVleet is listed as “doubtful,” while Siakam, McCaw and Flynn were upgraded to “questionable” versus the Pistons. It’s unknown whether the other four Raptors tested positive or were sidelined because of contact tracing.

Siakam has missed the past six games, while the others have each missed five.

Their healthy return will be good news for a Raptors team that has lost five straight to drop to 11th in the Eastern Conference at 17-22.

VanVleet said while the highlight of his day during isolation was watching games, it wasn’t easy viewing. He tried to keep his teammates’ spirits up even from his hotel room.

“Just trying to talk guys off the ledge, man,” VanVleet said. “(Telling them) ‘Just gotta get one. Just gotta get one,’ and that turned into most of the conversation. But that one never came, so I just ended up just keeping the guys locked in and just ‘Listen, we’ll be back, we’ll have our team back at some point.'”

Coach Nick Nurse said the players’ return was a big boost to the team’s spirits.

“Guys just showing up at the plane, mini-celebrations for each new guy that comes back, either coach or player. Just a lot of ‘Good to see you, man’ going on there and then obviously on the court . . . actually almost had the whole roster out there tonight.”

The returning players will be carefully managed.

“It’s certainly an individual case-by-case basis and whether you had it or not had it, there’s guys that have been out for a long time so it’s conditioning in general, general wellbeing is at the forefront and managing the minutes and making sure and asking the guys to be honest with themselves,” Nurse said.

“I think there’s a little bit of give and take there, but I think very cautious is where I’d put it.”

VanVleet said despite contracting the illness, he said the “NBA has been doing a good job” of playing amid the pandemic.

“But what, 27 teams? I think we were the 27th team, 26th team to have some cases, so join the club,” he said.

The 27-year-old from Rockford, Ill., said he didn’t sleep at all Sunday night, partly due to excitement about his return and partly because he was consoling his son Fred Jr., who’d “busted his eye up.”

“I caught myself walking into the gym just smiling, smiling like I forgot how much I love this (stuff),” said VanVleet, who’d been so bored in isolation, he asked the Raptors moderator to allow for more media questions, when the moderator announced the Zoom call was ending.

“I really love the game, I really love basketball, I really love being in the gym, I don’t always love everything that comes with it, you know what I’m saying? But it’s just a blessing being back and having that taken away from me for that period of time where you just go cold turkey, nothing . . . I’ve been giving out more hugs in the last 24 hours than I ever have in my life so I’m happy just to be back.”