For the NBA, a long, strange road trip to the finals

Monty Williams of the Suns, right, and Anthony Davis of the Lakers got a chance to talk last week

By Marc Stein

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers has likened his new surroundings to a youth basketball tournament for grown men who happen to be some of the most recognizable sports stars on the planet.

CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers combats the pangs he feels for his fiancée and his dog back home with “my essential oils and my dehumidifier and my books,” and the occasional indulgence in wine he packed.

Gone are the ostentatious arena entrances dressed in the finest fashions and the whirl of big-city night life. NBA players have gathered for the most extraordinary experiment in league history: to play out the rest of the season without fans on a confined campus and abide by a thick book of rules that includes assigned seats on the bench and prohibitions on postgame showers until players return to a team hotel. (The WNBA is engaged in a similar experiment in Bradenton, Fla.)

Life in what everyone calls “the bubble” is at once strange and mundane. With more than 350 players and the staffs of 22 teams thrown together in a restricted-access environment at Walt Disney World to resume this virus-interrupted season, even a routine encounter between two of basketball’s top distance shooters takes on heightened meaning.

JJ Redick of the New Orleans Pelicans and Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings had their first extended conversation in the players’ lounge of a hotel where, odd as it sounds, both men now reside.

“We just kind of chopped it up a little bit,” Redick said.

On March 11, when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA became the first major North American sports league to shut down. Now, some four months later, the league has summoned all but the eight teams with the worst records to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, where, starting Thursday, it will stage games over the next three months even as the pandemic rages across Florida and much of the South and West.

“It’s such a unique experience,” Ian Mahinmi of the Washington Wizards said. “When is the last time the whole NBA was in one spot at the same time? It’s crazy.”

Living together in relative isolation, in three team hotels, players are tested daily for the coronavirus and reminded to wear masks and observe social-distancing rules when they are engaged in any activity apart from playing, practicing or working out. Tests are returned far faster than for residents in surrounding areas because the NBA has hired a private laboratory to process the results for an estimated campus population of 1,500.

The limitations of the tightly controlled existence are such that some players look forward to practice sessions they may not have otherwise relished because “they like to get out of their rooms,” Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford said.

Players, coaches and team personnel are not allowed to leave the campus without authorization and will live here for a minimum of six weeks. For the two teams that reach the NBA Finals, that stay will last until mid-October — provided the virus does not pierce the bubble.

“It requires significant sacrifice from our players,” Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, said in a phone interview from his home in the New York metropolitan area.

I live among them in the bubble, having also consented to daily coronavirus testing and a seven-day quarantine in a hotel room to join a small group of news media representatives approved to report on the restart.

But I’m in a bubble within the bubble. The restrictions on members of the news media are onerous; I was not allowed to leave my room even to fill an ice bucket during quarantine, and I had to agree not to approach team personnel if I happened to see them outside officially arranged interview sessions. The typical interactions that nourish my reporting have largely been banned.

I arrived two weeks ago, but players arrived before that and have had nearly three weeks to get acquainted with the 113 pages of health and safety regulations that govern campus life. The depth of the regulations remains a shock to the system for many.

Spending any time in a teammate’s hotel room is forbidden. No caddies are allowed on golf outings, playing doubles in table tennis is outlawed — singles only — and there can be no sharing of goggles or towels.

Leaving the campus without permission carries one of the heftiest punishments: After he crossed a campus border to pick up a delivery order of chicken wings, Richaun Holmes of the Sacramento Kings was ordered to quarantine for 10 extra days and, at the league’s discretion, was subject to receiving the more invasive nasopharyngeal swab for coronavirus tests, rather than the usual shallow nose and throat swabs that are standard here. Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers began a similar 10-day quarantine Saturday after he was photographed, on an excused absence to attend a family funeral, picking up dinner and spending time in a gentlemen’s club in Atlanta.

Playing video games has emerged as the most popular activity to combat isolation. Food variety was initially a big discussion point, but criticisms have dwindled as the league has increased the options. Early consternation about hotel assignments, which were based on team records at the time the season was suspended in March, has also faded, with several players acknowledging the poor optics of complaining about food and accommodations at a time of widespread economic struggle.

Yet the hunger for a shred of normalcy, such as going out to eat, quickly took hold. Players have largely taken over the only restaurant available in the Gran Destino hotel, which houses the top eight teams. Crowds at the restaurant, the Rix Lounge, have gotten so big that it has adopted a players-only policy in recent days.

As the pandemic rages just beyond the campus perimeter and while the country is roiled by protest and debate over race relations, far more than sports glory is on the line in the NBA’s comeback. The league is spending at least $180 million with ESPN’s parent company, Disney, and on its testing operation to ensure that the league’s 74th season ends the way the previous 73 did — with a champion crowned.

Achieving that goal would not only enable the NBA to avoid a potential loss of $1 billion in television revenue, but also allow its players, an estimated 80 percent of whom are Black, to protest racism and police brutality louder than ever before, as many have pledged, from a highly visible platform.

The players have vowed not to let the hoopla around the restart of the season obscure their efforts to speak out on social justice issues. “Black Lives Matter” is emblazoned in bold lettering near the scorer’s table at the three venues that will be used for games. And players, including the Lakers’ James, have used their interactions with the news media to call for the arrest of the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, Ky., in March.

The NBA has not yet said how it would handle an outbreak on campus as the season resumes, but the bubble appears to be holding. The league announced that of the 346 players tested daily for the coronavirus from July 13 to 19, none tested positive for the virus. A few notable players have left, but the departures have been attributed to urgent personal matters or injuries.

“From my standpoint, it’s going very well, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re on the right track,” said Silver, the commissioner, who is scheduled to make his first appearance on campus this week. “But I also recognize what we’re doing has not been done before, and the competition is just beginning. The real test will come when players are commingling, playing basketball without masks and without physical distancing.”