When Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas set about assembling a front-office staff in Minnesota in 2019, he was insistent that the group include a doctor who specialized in medicine and technology. Rosas was looking for someone analytical who could help the Timberwolves use data to optimize the health of players.
Rosas eventually hired Dr. Robby Sikka, who has a background in anesthesiology, sports medicine research and returning to play after injury.
“Whenever I got a job, that was the type of guy that I wanted in my front office,” Rosas said. “He allows us to attack blind spots that are critical to our players.”
At the time, Rosas could not have predicted that Sikka’s job would include combating a virus that spiraled into a global pandemic and caused the NBA to shut down. Now, Sikka and the Mayo Clinic — an academic medical center headquartered in Rochester, Minnesota — are spearheading a leaguewide study that aims to establish what percentage of NBA players, coaches, executives and staff have developed antibodies to the coronavirus.
The initiative, which is supported by the league office and the players’ association, is expected to have the participation of all 30 teams.
“We are learning about this disease,” Sikka said. “We have learned a lot in two months. So if we can take the next two months, learn on the fly, mitigate risk, then we can move pretty quickly to do the right things to have safe play.”
As practice facilities begin to open around the league, NBA officials are continuing to seek information about best practices to mitigate risk of infection for players and staff. Sikka, one of 10 people on the NBA’s sports science committee, has become one of the league’s resources.
Assessing the prevalence of antibodies in NBA personnel will help teams identify which people might have a lower risk of contracting COVID-19. The study is expected to be completed in June.
Stanford University conducted a similar study for Major League Baseball employees in mid-April. That study found that just 0.7% of that population tested positive for antibodies. In the NBA, the Mayo Clinic reached out to Sikka. In consultation with the rest of the committee, Sikka prepared an outline of the benefits of the study, which was then reviewed at a board of governors meeting.
For Sikka and the Timberwolves, continuing to study and understand the coronavirus and its spread is personal.
Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, the mother of Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns, died because of complications from COVID-19 on April 13. In an emotional Instagram video posted on March 25, Towns said that both his mother and father had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. Towns’ father, Karl Sr., began to recover, but his mother continued to struggle and was put in a medically induced coma and on a ventilator.
In just one season with the Wolves, Sikka and Rosas became close to Towns’ parents, who attended almost all of their son’s games.
“It very much hit home for us,” Sikka said. “I am never going to forget that experience with Karl. It changed my life, it changed his life, it changed our organization’s history. It was extremely challenging for everybody.”
Before his mother’s death, Towns donated $100,000 to assist Sikka and the Mayo Clinic’s coronavirus research.
“We took a cue from KAT and his family,” Rosas said. “We took that cue and looked for ways to be good teammates to the NBA and the 29 other teams by connecting with Mayo Clinic to try to find strategies to fight the virus.”
Antibody testing is relatively new. Doctors are still working to understand what the presence of antibodies means. It remains unclear — even if a person tests positive for antibodies — whether and for how long that person has immunity to the coronavirus. This study could help identify which NBA personnel have had the coronavirus but were asymptomatic and, therefore, help map the spread of the disease in the league.
The league shut down in March after players on the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, several teams have tested their entire organizations, including those who were asymptomatic. There was a national outcry over sports leagues’ disproportionate access to testing. At the time, there was a national shortage of tests, and even now, there are people who need tests who haven’t had access to them.
In this study, blood samples will be collected using the finger prick method and blood draws. According to a memo that was sent to teams and reviewed by ESPN, the Mayo Clinic hopes the study will help validate the less invasive method, making it easier for widespread antibody testing in the general public.
“I think teams are obligated to do something right for their communities before they do right for anybody else,” Sikka said.
Before joining the Timberwolves, Sikka had published more than 40 peer-reviewed studies, primarily on returning to play after injury.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski contributed to this report.