ORLANDO – Ready for some excitement?
Let me tell you about the first couple of days in the NBA bubble.
Let’s start here: I was thrilled—beyond thrilled, really—to be one of the handful of reporters selected to work at Disney World's NBA campus, where the league has set up shop for the next three months. Covering the NBA via Zoom has been interesting, and it’s been nice to not eat regularly in airports (I didn’t miss you, Auntie Anne’s), but with the NBA set to resume its season in the coming weeks, I wanted to have boots on the ground.
The league did too, so here we are. The NBA has divided media coverage into two tiers. The first tier consists of about a dozen reporters who are allowed into the bubble. The second is a larger group that will have access to the arenas from the outside. I was approved for the first tier last week, and with the approval comes instructions to begin quarantining immediately. I was, effectively, placed under house arrest until my flight to Orlando on Sunday morning. I followed the rules fairly closely, leaving only for a trip to CVS, a couple of runs and, for some reason, to pick up an oversized bottle of something called Vanderpump Rosé.
Flying certainly felt different. I’ve grown used to flying a few days per week, sometimes more. But, like most, I’ve been grounded the last three months, so walking through Boston’s Logan Airport felt a little eerie. The usually full board of outgoing flights in the Delta terminal was whittled down to about two dozen. A long, socially distanced line at the Dunkin Donuts was the only sign or commerce. The plane itself was sparsely populated. Delta is only operating flights at 60% capacity. For the three-hour flight to Florida, I had an entire row to myself.
You become part of the NBA machine as soon as you exit the terminal. A car is waiting to take you to the Disney campus, passing through two security checkpoints to get there. Upon arrival you are outfitted with a MagicBand—which serves as your room key—and whisked to your hotel room with strict instructions not to leave for the next seven days. Failure to comply with NBA rules has consequences: Houston’s Bruno Coboclo and Sacramento’s Richaun Holmes ventured outside the NBA’s quarantine zone, and both are now immersed in a mandatory 10-day lockdown.
“I think our protocols and our health and safety measures have been top-notch,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “I think this thing will work perfectly. I think the league, the players' association has done a phenomenal job of making sure that we're doing everything that we can possibly do to make sure that we're healthy, we're safe and we're in an environment where we can be successful and to do our jobs at a high level."
There’s a palpable excitement when you get to the hotel. This is history, after all. The NBA is spending in the neighborhood of $150 million to finish its season in Orlando. For the next few months, players will practice in modified ballrooms, live out of hotel rooms and play games in empty arenas. Many came prepared. Clippers forward Montrez Harrell traveled with a portable sauna. His teammate, Lou Williams, brought a recording studio. Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle is documenting the trip on his YouTube page. Everyone seems to have a video game system.
I packed plenty for this trip. But it didn’t take long to realize … I didn’t pack enough. Snacks, for starters. Look: This isn’t Shawshank. We’re isolated for seven days, but I’m not dressing up and talking to my ice bucket. The rooms are nice. The NBA provides three meals a day. After 5 p.m., you can dial up room service and order more. On Sunday, hotel officials dropped off packages of drinks, from bottled water to bottled Starbucks. Seriously—my front door looked like someone knocked off a 7-Eleven and ditched the evidence. But I’m a picky eater (who likes cheese on anything but pizza?) and a few extra boxes of granola bars would have been smart.
The NBA prepares you for everything. Zoom calls with league officials, with NBA P.R. chief Tim Frank—wearing an old school headset that makes him look like a cross between an NFL offensive coordinator and a retired gamer—moderating to walk you through all the working protocols and medical procedures. Professionally, there’s huge upside to being in the bubble. Bubble reporters can attend practices. They can request one-on-one’s, albeit interviews that must be done from a distance. Credentials come with physical distancing sensors. Press seats for games are close to the floor which, in an empty arena, all but ensures the media will see and hear things they could never hope to before, all of which can be delivered to readers.
Medically, the NBA isn’t taking any chances. Shortly after I arrived on Sunday, an NBA swag bag is delivered. Inside is a thermometer (your temperature must be registered daily on the NBA’s health app), a pulse oximeter (ditto), face masks and Clorox wipes. Eventually bubble reporters will get to roam the campus, but to get past checkpoints you have to complete a battery of tests. If you don’t, the MagicBand won’t swipe you through. The first COVID-19 test came around 10:30, when two technicians and a league official knock on your door. Two shallow nasal swabs, one throat swab and its done. Test results rolled in less than 24 hours later.
There’s a temptation to see the NBA protocols as proof the league’s bubble will hold. And chances are, it will. Of the 322 players the NBA tested since the campus opened, just two returned positive. Neither player cleared quarantine, the NBA said, and both have left campus. That’s a great sign. But untested Disney employees are still part of the NBA bubble and as the season progresses, mentally drained players, even staffers, may test the NBA’s rules. Florida remains the U.S.’s hottest of hot spots—12,600 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Monday, after more than 15,000 were reported on Sunday—and sports leagues are already getting backlash for regularly testing asymptomatic athletes while nationwide testing issues linger.
So we’ll see. For now, players are settling in, practices are underway (so Ben Simmons is a power forward now?) and players are expressing genuine excitement about chasing the most unusual of championships. I’m looking forward to covering it … sometime next week.