ORLANDO – The text came in a little after 11 am, and my first day inside the bubble hit its first official speed bump. Just wrapped practice—you here? This, from Thunder p.r. man Matt Tumbleson, buzzed just as I was preparing to leave my hotel room—and 20 some odd minutes away. Oklahoma City finished early. And after a week spent eagerly anticipating getting to practice, I had missed my first one.
Welcome inside the bubble, the NBA’s $170 million effort to complete its COVID-19 ravaged season. Media quarantine ended on Sunday night, freeing a dozen or so (digitally) inked stained wretches from the four walls of the Coronado Springs hotel. It was a liberating moment, until you remembered freedom meant exposure to 90-plus degree temperatures in the soupy air of central Florida. Freedom came with restrictions, too. Team hotels are off limits. Areas where players walk around are on the no-fly list, too. Team personnel can visit the media, but reporters are expressly prohibited from wandering over to them. After a couple of laps through campus (Look, a pool! A gym! A … parking lot!) most retreated to their rooms.
Routine is important in the bubble. The NBA requires media members to submit practice requests two days in advance. A medical questionnaire must be filled out before 11 am. Temperature checks, pulse ox measurements, the works. Coronavirus testing starts at 9. Just leaving the room requires a checklist. Mask? Got it. MagicBand? Wearing it. Credential? On Monday, I made it halfway to the testing site without wearing mine. I power walked back to my room, arms crossed in a goofy attempt to ensure security didn’t notice.
After jumping through a few hoops, the opportunities in the bubble are endless. It’s an NBA writers fantasy camp. Covering teams used to require a plane ride and a few nights in a hotel. On Monday, I checked in on four in one day. Portland was my first stop, and yes—Skinny Melo is a real thing. Carmelo Anthony says he dropped five pounds during the NBA hiatus, though it looks like more. There’s a lot of buzz around these Blazers. Portland is 3 ½ games back of Memphis for the final playoff spot in the West, but a returning Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins has given the Blazers a talent infusion. Charles Barkley, among others, has already picked Portland to upset the Lakers in the first round. Danny Green has said LA wants no part of them. Watching Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum light up shooting drills after practice, you start to become a believer.
Indiana was next, where Victor Oladipo watch is in full swing. Pacers coach Nate McMillan broke some news on Monday when he announced that Oladipo would participate in Indiana’s scrimmages this week. It’s been a weird week for Oladipo, who came to Orlando intending to sit out—though healthy, Oladipo didn’t want to risk re-injuring his right quadriceps, which tore in January, 2019 and sidelined him for a year—but is now likely to play in a resumed season.
“He's going through the practices and he's looking good," McMillan said. "Our first scrimmage is Thursday and we'll see how our guys feel and get them minutes accordingly. Right now, there is no restrictions on anyone."
A couple of hours later, Celtics practice and … wait, what is Tacko Fall doing? In the corner of the gym, Fall, Boston’s 7’5” rookie project, is bouncing two basketballs. A cell phone is held up by a stand in front of him. During the NBA’s hiatus, Celtics coach Brad Stevens encouraged his assistants to get creative with the players they worked with. Jay Larranaga, Stevens’s top assistant, gave Fall a dribbling drill. It’s a ten minute video, set to Fall’s preferred music, with slides that tell Fall when to change dribbles.
(For what it’s worth, Boston believes Fall, who averaged a double-double in the G-League this season, is going to be a solid rotation player.)
A few minutes after practice ends, Stevens settles onto a stool for a Zoom call with local reporters. As Stevens spoke, Kemba Walker zipped past him. Walker’s health looms as Boston’s biggest question. A nagging, pre-pandemic knee injury has lingered. Walker has been participating in recent practices, going 50 minutes on Sunday. On Monday, Walker ran sprints along the sideline. Speaking with reporters, Stevens couldn’t help but note how quickly Walker moved on his way to the restroom.
“Kemba just flew by us,” Stevens said. “We all saw his change of direction and different speeds. He hasn’t lost much. I don’t know if that was in his practice plan or not, but he was flying. Kemba is getting better, feeling good.”
Toronto got the NBA’s final practice time, a 7-10 p.m. window. Raptors coach Nick Nurse likes the late practice. Makes it feel more like a game day, Nurse said. Kyle Lowry does not. Lowry is an early riser, in the gym at 8 am most mornings. Lowry, Nurse said, is always after Nurse to schedule practices as early as possible.
Imprinted on Nurse’s long sleeve shirt, three words: Black Lives Matter. The Raptors have been among the more visible teams supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. They arrived on a bus with the words emblazoned on the side of it. Inside the gym, players wore tee shirts printed with the phrase. And they are not alone. NBA players were determined not to let the social justice movement fade when the season resumed. And they have backed that up. Nuggets forward Jerami Grant spent his media session this week reminding reporters that “Breonna Taylor’s killers are still roaming around free.” Sixers forward Tobias Harris used his to name check Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron, demanding that Cameron prosecute the police officers who killed Taylor, a Louisville-area EMT, who was shot and killed in her home last March. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle used part of his availability educating reporters on the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, the Civil War battle led by the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the Union’s all-Black regiment, immortalized in the 1989 film, Glory.
As the Raptors finished, so did Day 1. A quick bus ride back to the hotel, and it’s over. Four teams, four practices and Tuesday offers more of the same. Scrimmages start Wednesday, when players will finally get to lace up against someone other than a teammate. The bubble season truly is a unique experience. For players … and media, too.