(Finally) Talkin’ about practice

Bulls’ Robin Lopez guards his twin brother, the Nets’ Brook Lopez, during the first half of of game on April 8, 2017.

By Marc Stein

The two happiest NBA players these days just may be Brook and Robin Lopez. Milwaukee’s 7-foot twin brothers double as unabashed Disney lovers.

“There is nothing false about that statement,” Brook Lopez told me when we crossed paths earlier this week at Walt Disney World, which is hosting the rest of the NBA season.

You could see the glee on Lopez’s face even though more than half of it, in accordance with NBA regulations, was covered by a mask. His smile was that big. The Bucks are a title contender and will be here through mid-October if they can reach the NBA Finals.

It turns out my Monday, if not quite Lopez-level, was pretty good, too. It was my first full day out of quarantine after seven days of being restricted to a 314-square-foot room. I signed up to go to six practices in this new NBA world that suddenly requires no air travel and, despite one cancellation and a couple of timing conflicts, managed to make three of them. I got to be in a gym again for the first time since March 6 and watched happily as Luka Doncic, at a basket on the far end of the facility, went through his array of jab-step moves against the defense of Dallas assistant coach Jamahl Mosley — just like they do before every game.

As a Dallas resident who typically sees the Mavericks often, it was my first dose of basketball normalcy in a long, long time — apart from the inelegant elbow bump greetings that I tried to exchange with the likes of Doncic, Boban Marjanovic and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.

“I’m having a blast,” Carlisle said.

Carlisle’s team plays the Los Angeles Lakers in a scrimmage tonight, and he was too excited by the looming prospect of an actual game to manage to fret over the aesthetics of awkward greetings in the name of public health guidelines. Carlisle said he sensed that the Mavericks were “energized” by the fast-approaching resumption of the 2019-20 season and speculated that many other teams felt the same.

I certainly got a jolt Sunday afternoon from my first exposure to sunlight in a week and the chance to get my daily steps in on actual concrete, but the real lift came Monday when I got to go see a few teams.

As stated in last week’s newsletter, I don’t like to discuss work conditions because this really is a dream job — and complaining out loud is dumb. This trip, though, is different. For the first time in league history, 22 teams are living, practicing and playing in the same place. And I’m one of only 10 independent reporters approved to cover the NBA restart at the league’s centralized location. So I share what I share here and tweet what I tweet from the experience because I don’t think there has ever been a time, in my 27 seasons covering #thisleague, that the audience wanted to know more about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

There’s a perception, at the so-called NBA bubble, that we’re bunking with LeBron James this summer. In reality, because all face-to-face contact with players, coaches and team staff members is forbidden outside of official interviews and news conferences arranged by the league, we are not supposed to get close to James or anyone else. The way things are set up for the news media at Disney World, chance encounters like the one I had with Lopez can realistically only happen during practice times at the convention center at the Coronado Springs Resort. Three of the league’s seven practice courts are at the convention center, adjacent to a hallway that representatives from the eight teams staying at the Gran Destino are prone to populate.

I found that out Monday afternoon while waiting to get inside the San Antonio Spurs’ practice. Lopez, along with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Joakim Noah, soon passed by in the short time I was there.

Most of these encounters will generate little more than a hello, because the aforementioned 10 reporters, and a like number from the league’s official media partners at ESPN and Turner, were required to sign unprecedented waivers pledging that we would not approach any team personnel when we saw them outside of official access periods for the news media.

The rules were conceived by the league for safety reasons. To minimize the risk of a coronavirus outbreak, it wants no one getting close to the principals who does not need to be close. But let’s be clear: There are likely other motivations for league and team officials to have limited our accessible slice of the Coronado Springs property to less than 1 square mile, as measured on a walk by my colleague Ben Golliver of The Washington Post.

They don’t want us to see and document violations — players not wearing masks or failing to maintain a proper distance. They don’t want us to see the inter-team mingling that, in the NBA’s social media era, will inevitably (and instantly) be construed as tampering, like last week when Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and Andre Iguodala of the Miami Heat, who have a long-standing relationship as former player agent (Pelinka) and client (Iguodala), were spotted walking together.

They don’t want us encroaching on team privacy, and especially player privacy, when those players have already been asked to give up so many of their usual freedoms to play on a campus they are not allowed to leave without permission for as long as their teams are here.

Interactions like the one I had with Lopez are likely to be even rarer than we expected going in because the league Sunday closed off a common area shared by residents of the media wing and the Gran Destino tower that houses the eight teams with the best records when play was suspended March 11. Two reporters from ESPN and Turner who were invited to campus early kept running into players on their trips to grab food or a coffee, so those zones have been blocked off.

We’ll adjust. We’ll find our opportunities. In the 15-minute blocks of practice that reporters are actually allowed to watch, I saw little more Monday than individual shooting drills and, in the Spurs’ case, players in very spread out folding chairs putting on their sneakers before practice. Yet we will learn to maximize what the new normal affords us, just like the participants.

“Everyone keeps asking, ‘How is the bubble?’ or, ‘How is it going?’” James said Monday after the Lakers’ practice session. “And I just say, ‘It’s 2020.’ Nothing is normal in 2020. Nothing seems as is, and who knows if it will ever go back to the way it was. But you make the adjustments and you figure it out along the way. That’s what life is all about.”

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