Opinion: Rudy Gobert was childish, yes. The Utah Jazz center also did a great public service

Rudy Gobert’s immaturity might have saved us.

Despite his insanely good defense, Gobert is not one of the NBA’s major stars. His name might ring a bell for many, particularly people in Utah and those who are huge NBA fans. But he is not Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Zion Williamson.

Had he simply tested positive for the coronavirus, maybe it still would have raised alarm. Maybe it still would have prompted the NBA to shut the league down.

But the fact Gobert so clearly hadn’t taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously, that he had made a point of touching microphones and recorders after the NBA and other leagues had closed locker rooms and clubhouses to media and might have done something equally childish in the Utah Jazz locker room, put a white-hot spotlight on the danger the virus presents.

A spotlight the country desperately needed.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert

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For weeks, epidemiologists and other medical professionals had been warning that it was only a matter of time before the United States was inundated with COVID-19 cases and that we were woefully unprepared for what was to come. And unless you lived in Seattle or northern California, those warnings were largely ignored.

That our federal government, led by President Donald Trump, downplayed the seriousness of the virus, even spreading disinformation to deflect accountability, didn’t help. We were lulled into a false sense of security, going ahead with our games and concerts and other activities as if what happened in China and Italy couldn’t happen here.

Even the warning by Dr. Anthony Fauci, long one of the nation’s foremost health experts, that NBA games shouldn’t be played with fans in the buildings wasn’t enough to change behaviors.

Until Gobert tested positive.

As video of him touching media equipment went viral Wednesday night, as reporters who covered the Jazz tweeted about having to be tested, our assumptions about this not spreading beyond our elderly and medically vulnerable crumbled. Those doubts about whether it was really necessary to shut down the NBA, the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments and all of our other cultural touchstones looked both naïve and reckless. The condescending dismissiveness toward the “alarmists” who had already closed schools and businesses turned to privileged embarrassment.

“I would like to publicly apologize to the people that I may have endangered,” Gobert said Thursday in an Instagram post. “At the time, I had no idea I was even infected. I was careless and make no excuse.

“I hope my story serves as a warning and causes everyone to take this seriously,” he added. “I will do whatever I can to support using my experience as way to educate others and prevent the spread of this virus.”

Within hours of the announcement that Gobert had COVID-19, the NBA had suspended its season, setting off a domino effect that has effectively brought the United States to a standstill. The NCAA called off all spring championships, including March Madness. The NHL is on hiatus. Major League Baseball pushed back the season opener and shut down spring training.

Schools in several states are closed for at least two weeks. State and local officials are urging residents to stay home and, in some cases, mandating it or putting restrictions in place to limit crowd sizes.

In a matter of four days, we have largely done an about-face in our thinking and in our actions. And we have Gobert, and the other players he infected, to thank.

Even in places where COVID-19 is widespread, the cases are still largely anonymous. Unless a family member, or someone who is infected themselves, shares that information, we know little beyond “a nursing home in Kirkland, Wash.” “A man who lives in New Rochelle, N.Y.”

That tells us nothing, and allows us to hold tight to that last shred of invincibility.

But Gobert and other celebrities, for better or worse, don’t have the luxury of that anonymity. Because they are on such a large, public stage, their diagnoses become matters of public health. They make the epidemic real, and bring its dangers home, in a way no chart and no news conference can.

Yes, Gobert was careless, childish and a smart aleck. He also, inadvertently, did us a great public service. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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