If just judging by social media accounts, life in the NBA bubble does not seem so bad. Fishing outings with bass apparently biting. Cornhole. Golf. Room service.
Put aside that those inside the gates of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex have been removed from family, friends and a good deal of free will for the balance of the summer and, for some, well into fall, it seems manageable.
There has even been a strong sentiment that for all the safety concerns before the NBA moved in, and those that remain, that the health and safety protocols might just work.
Yet, more than a week after the Rockets and the other teams in the third group to move in were permitted to leave their hotel rooms after the quarantine periods, there is also a sense that reactions to bubble life, as with activities themselves, are to some degree about making the best of it.
Quick fishing trip pic.twitter.com/ZPv1Mu6Kfx
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) July 12, 2020
While trying to restart a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the local numbers of cases and positivity rates surging, the prevailing attitude seems to be that moving the NBA to a Central Florida campus is worth the effort and sacrifice.
“I think they are just so excited to do what they love,” said Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who is in the bubble. “That’s been really, really positive.”
As with any training camp, it is not a way anyone would choose to spend time. But it is necessary to get to the competition that is really the point. Scrimmages begin this week. “Seeding” games begin a week later.
Unprecedented as the endeavor is, it also has similarities to AAU tournaments, international events and overseas training camps. The greater differences will come as the Disney stay drags on. But by then, with games every other day, focus could replace boredom, basketball will replace ping pong.
“I think the bubble life will be fine,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Once you get into a routine it’ll go by quickly. Especially when we start scrimmaging and playing games and then the playoffs, it’ll go by real quick. So, I don’t see any problems there.”
A secure environment
There had been considerable anxiety and legitimate questions about restarting an NBA season not just during a pandemic but in the neighborhood of a COVID-19 hotspot.
The NBA and players association negotiated enough fine details to produce a 113-page handbook of safety protocols distributed weeks before the first charter flight went wheels up for Florida and a blizzard of memos in the weeks since.
The NBA and NBPA announced that 19 players tested positive for COVID-19 between July 1 and the departures from home markets and that two players tested positive during the quarantine period after arrival. With daily testing, there have been no reports of anyone testing positive after being cleared to leave hotel rooms and be in the community.
“If anything, it feels too secure at times, but we understand why so no one is bothered by it,” Morey said. ‘I think the NBA and the players’ union are going to be the model for pro sports, at least in this crisis. A lot of that is because of the partnership that Adam (Silver, the NBA commissioner) and the league office and Michele (Roberts, the NBPA executive director) and the players’ union have fostered. You see all the problems other pro leagues are having. A lot of it is because they don’t have a partnership mindset.
“Mostly, I have incredible respect for what the NBA and the players’ union have put together here. It’s really well thought out. I feel we may be in the safest spot on Earth. Maybe Antarctica, but this is close.”
For all the jokes about the NBA’s tip hotline in which players can report each other for violations — operators might be standing by the night before Game 7s like volunteers at a PBS pledge drive — the idea that players have been pointing out infractions indicates how seriously they are taking protocols. Lakers center Dwight Howard said he was warned for failing to wear a mask outside of his room. Rockets center Bruno Caboclo never left the building when he was sent back to 10 days of quarantine for leaving his hotel room prematurely.
The mindset has been to do everything possible to make sure no one with the NBA has the coronavirus and to act as if everyone does. Even with daily testing, masks are required any time players are not on the practice court, eating or in their own rooms. More spacing is expected than in the Rockets’ smallball lineup.
“They’ve done a great job,” Rockets guard Austin Rivers said. “It seems like the NBA continues to be the leader in everything. I guess the UFC has the island thing. We have this bubble. Now, we’re doing the tracking stuff and have the ring, the bracelet, all these different mechanisms and gadgets … to track players health, make sure we’re is able to perform and give fans what they want, which is basketball but safely.
“It’s been really impressive. I had a lot of questions coming into the bubble. But they’ve done a great job. People on the outside were like, ‘guys are going to try to sneak girls in’ or this or that in. You hear all this stuff on the internet. There’s nowhere to go, man. Disney is way outside of Orlando. We’re like deep into it here. The hotel we’re staying at and everyone is staying at are ones they chose I think for a reason. They’re very hard to get in or get out without being seen.”
Even at practice, everyone other than players wear masks. D’Antoni said he will wear a mask while coaching. As much attention had been paid to the potential risks older coaches and staff members might have, D’Antoni, 69, said he has felt no apprehension waiting for his daily test results.
“No, because I think you can take responsible steps, not getting within six feet,” he said. “Anyone I’m around is wearing masks. If we follow the guidelines that have been there the last three months, we’re in good shape. I feel good about what I do personally, but also what the NBA’s doing, what the other players are doing on their own. They’re very careful.
“We want to have the best start-up we can possibly have. There’s always a little risk. Everybody knows that. But we’re doing everything we can to mitigate that. I feel comfortable about that.”
PJ “Sneaker God” Tucker got his hotel room looking like a kicks museum
(via pjtucker/Instagram, h/t sneakercenter/IG) pic.twitter.com/WnMGifjYek
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 14, 2020
Finding ways to have fun
Not since Michael Jordan hit Atlantic City during a playoff series has there been so much talk about NBA players killing time.
Jimmy Butler spent so much time working on hotel room ballhandling a neighbor lodged a noise complaint. J.J. Redick and Myers Leonard showed off talent for shot gunning beers. Players outfitted rooms luxuriously with P.J. Tucker installing an 85-inch television, Lou Williams setting up a music studio and Montrezl Harrell, who has since had to leave the campus for a family emergency, bringing a portable sauna.
Most of all, many fish were reeled in and featured in social media posts, with nearly every activity to fight tedium and frustration with being on the longest road trip in NBA history.
“It was fun,” Rockets forward Robert Covington said of a fishing trip with teammate Ben McLemore and assistant trainer Motoki Fujii. “Stuff like that can be team bonding. A couple guys talked about it. Me and Ben decided instead of talk about it just go do it. We had a couple hours to spare. Being in that room, you can sit up there and go crazy a little bit. As long as you keep yourself going, you keep yourself motivated.
“I’ll be doing that a lot while I’m here. It’s about keeping your mind going like we’re not in this situation. If you just focus on this situation, it can get away from you a little bit. I just want to keep doing things that spark my interest, just stay active outside of basketball.”
For all the talk of in-room dining, the Rockets have taken to having team dinners brought in from Morton’s, Oceanaire, Saltgrass and Joe’s Crab Shack.
“We were able to have a dinner at a sit-down restaurant here, my first one since the crises started,” said Morey, who has had daily two- to four-hour draft and free agency meetings but no campus activities yet. “That was awesome. There are some things, absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Morey said he and D’Antoni will team up in a cornhole competition where they will no doubt consider themselves to be ringers.
There will be golf outings. Players will attend DJ sets. The season will resume. Playoff games will come with the usual import. But even less than two weeks in, there is a sense that as long as those in the bubble stay healthy, the experiment can work — even when distractions lose their charms.
“It’s very different,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon said. “You’re not going home to your family and friends. Every day now, all you can do is thrive off your teammates and teams that are around. You have to focus in on your body and really focus in on what we need to do. That’s really about it.”