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'I'm Going Home.' Reflecting on Life Inside the NBA Bubble

Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix gives insight on what life was like living inside the NBA bubble.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.—Goodbye, Bubble.

Goodbye, Orlando, Lake Buena Vista or wherever you officially were. After two months, 62 COVID-19 tests and a lifetime's worth of hand sanitizer, I’m going home. Farewell to my lizard friends on the stairwell, the mosquitos that swarm by the thousands and the monsoons that seem to spring from the sky. So long 7 a.m. alarms and midnight bus rides, the sprints to catch the end of one practice and the hustling to make the ride to the next. My watch has ended.

Goodbye, access, and I mean great access. I was initially concerned about how much value there would be in coming down here. We were warned that we would be separated from teams and not allowed to wander. Walk-and-talks, the lifeblood of any reporter, weren’t allowed and one-on-ones weren’t guaranteed. But I got time with everyone from Jayson Tatum to Devin Booker, Jacque Vaughn to Nick Nurse. Even Steven Adams answered a few goofy questions for SI Kids.

We didn’t get LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, but you never get James or Leonard. You did get to chat up Masai Ujiri in the hallway, pester Monty McCutchen when you had a question about a call and interrupt Tim Connelly on one of his power walks. More importantly, when Jacob Blake was shot and the NBA shut down, you didn’t just get to hear players' reactions. You got to see them. You got to feel them. The despondence of Fred VanVleet. The frustration of George Hill. That mattered. It all mattered.

Goodbye, 314-square foot room, with your air conditioning that mysteriously shuts off in the middle of the night and your weird cactus art framed in every room. Honestly, two months in a hotel didn’t bother me that much. Live in Manhattan for more than a decade, and anything with a private bathroom starts to feel like the Taj Mahal. Now if I only could figure out how to use a Keurig.

Goodbye, housekeeping, and rest assured I’m leaving you a large tip. Outside of my next-door neighbors—and apologies to you for having to suffer through a loud barrage of hot takes ranging from Damian Lillard’s chances of shooting the Blazers into the second round to Canelo Alvarez’s next opponent—I owe you folks the most. You probably had never seen so many picked clean buffalo wings in the trash bags, and I cringe at the number of half-finished cans of Bubly you poured out. I’m among the worst offenders but I know I’m not the only one, so to my fellow media members, make sure any paper you leave behind has Andrew Jackson’s face on it.

Goodbye, snack size Krackels, Snickers and the junk food tables from hell the NBA set up in the media rooms. I arrived in Orlando anticipating a healthy trip. There was no Dominos delivery, so that eliminated about 4,700 carbs a week. Unlike Joe Vardon, the margarita master, or Marc Spears, a walking vineyard, I didn’t plan to keep any alcohol in my room. I was coming out of this feeling good. Hundreds of mini Mr. Goodbars and dozens of Mickey’s Ice Cream sandwiches later, and I’m leaving feeling bad.

Goodbye, Mack Weldon Ace Sweatpants, $78 and worth every nickel. Inside the waistband it reads FOR DAILY WEAR, and I took that literally. I often told people I had two pairs; I didn’t. I said I dropped them in the laundry every few days, and that wasn’t always true, either. These sweatpants belong framed somewhere in Advent HealthCare Arena, like Nate Robinson’s jersey on the summer league wall.

Goodbye, NBA PR chief Tim Frank, with your Jon Cryer wardrobe, Kelly Williams and Country Club Christiano with your way too peppy morning emails. The NBA had some goofy rules—so I can camp out in a hotel hallway all day but I can’t share a golf course with players for fear of, what, overhearing Kyle Lowry curse after shanking a putt?—and those proximity beepers … they were a little much.

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Seriously though: Team and league PR staffs were terrific, always available, as helpful as they could be in a challenging environment.

Goodbye, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, you bleacher creature. I lost count how many times I would be walking through the arena and I’d get a call or text from Bontemps—doing yeoman’s work for ESPN in Tier 2 throughout this—commenting on my wardrobe. Big Brother, weighing in from the upper deck. Follow Tim on Instagram, by the way, for compelling content like … scores.

Goodbye, Marc Stein, my hallway partner in the Coronado Springs. Stein and I had a similar strategy for the seeding games—don’t go to them. With three practice floors in Coronado and teams shuffling in and out, a six-city trip through the NBA could be had in one afternoon.

Goodbye, Grant Williams. I have no idea who was hazing the Celtics rookie—word is it was Marcus Smart—but with Boston’s meal room at the end of the Coronado lobby, I saw Williams make his way back and forth at least three times a day, bags of food in both hands. Someone was sending him on runs.

Goodbye, Malika Andrews, ESPN’s permanent bubble resident. You want lessons on how to remain COVID-19 free? Talk to Andrews, who wears disposable gloves around campus—and Purells them when she gets in a car. Look after the Orange County Register’s Kyle Goon who is, I think, one abruptly canceled practice away from a complete meltdown.

Goodbye, Adrian Wojnarowski. I liked you better when you were at The Vertical.

Goodbye, masks—but not really. I admit, I find masks uncomfortable. Stifling, even. But they work. There are two constant safety measures inside the bubble: masks and daily testing. Testing looks to become more available, with $5 rapid tests reportedly on the way. Masks are available right now. The NBA reported zero positive COVID-19 tests among players in the last eight weeks. It wasn’t because the league decamped in the only coronavirus free patch of land in Florida. It’s because everyone was wearing masks. They’re not an infringement on your freedom, folks. They are the way, for now, you can live a normal life.

Goodbye, coaches and players—no one could walk away from this experience without being enormously impressed. There were too many powerful moments to count. Rick Carlisle’s daily references to important moments in Black history. Doc Rivers's, choking back tears, wondering why the country he loves “doesn’t love us back.” Donovan Mitchell's reminding the world of its social justice issues … just moments after a crushing Game 7 loss.

The microscope these players have been under is intense, the environment harsh. They are fighting for what they believe in, all while being told to shut up and dribble. They are telling you what they have experienced, all while right-wing crackpots argue the size of your bank account matters more than your skin color. Many, in their mid-20s, are picking up a mantle that should be carried by elected officials generations older. Don’t tell me it hasn’t had an impact. What has happened here will be remembered forever.

Goodbye, readers—at least for now. I’ve got a couple of stories in the can and I’ll continue covering the postseason from afar. Michael Rosenberg will be Sports Illustrated's eyes and ears the rest of the way, so expect lots references to Brooks Koepka and glossy profiles on anyone who went to Michigan. I’m going underground for a few days. I’m going to download the new Bill & Ted movie. I’m going to stream Cobra Kai. I’ll reemerge next week. Probably in the same pants.