BOSTON—A cruise down Causeway Street offers a snapshot of the COVID-19 carnage. The Fours, an iconic sports bar, closed, shuttered for good. Ace Ticket, where thousands of Celtics and Bruins fans churned through every week, gone, a FOR LEASE sign slapped on the glass. A dozen bars and restaurants, all dark.
Inside TD Garden, an eerie sight. Quiet concourses. Empty seats. Eddie Palladino, Boston’s longtime public address announcer, invites the crowd to welcome the Celtics. A handful of staffers sitting nearby oblige. Eight of Boston’s 17 championship banners have been lowered to floor level, an attempt to create, at least on television, a cozier atmosphere.
On the court, NBA basketball, or at least a version of it. Boston thumped Cleveland 141–103 on Sunday, snapping a three-game losing streak. The Celtics played their fifth straight game without Jayson Tatum, who is recovering from a COVID diagnosis, one of the more than two dozen players who have popped positive in January. In San Antonio, the Wizards were finally able to field enough players to end a six-game layoff. In Memphis, the Grizzlies, which had their last five games postponed, announced that by Wednesday they would not be ready to play a sixth.
A month into the season, and I can only draw one conclusion: The NBA blew it. The decision to play games in home markets has been a failure. Dozens of games have been postponed. Countless more have been impacted by player absences. A 72-game season for many teams is a pipe dream. The ticket revenue squeezed out of a handful of arenas has been overshadowed by daily disruptions. The unwillingness to eat the cost of a closed-campus environment has come at a greater price.
“F--- this,” texted a veteran assistant coach last week. “I’m ready to go back [to the bubble].”
Across the NBA, a return to bubble life is picking up supporters. “It’s starting to get janky,” tweeted Aaron Gordon. “I’d be cool with a bubble if it was in the Bahamas or Hawaii and we got to bring our family/wife or girlfriend.” George Hill didn’t go that far, but when the NBA announced stricter protocols this month the Thunder guard declared, “If it's that serious, then maybe we shouldn't be playing.”
A season-long commitment to a bubble was never feasible, but as the schedule continues to crumble, it’s fair to wonder: Why not take extra precautions for a couple of months? The NBA opened training camp in December, days after epidemiologists predicted a wave of new infections after Thanksgiving. The season started around Christmas, when millions of holiday-gathering Americans created another one. Why not commit to two months of quarantine—the notion of regional bubble pods was discussed—and go from there?
Coaches are complimentary of the efforts the NBA is making to keep teams safe. But the protocols can be overwhelming. The Clippers played an afternoon game on Sunday, which meant players were in the practice facility late on Saturday. When Washington, D.C. was overwhelmed by insurrectionists, Wizards coach Scott Brooks said it took him more than 90 minutes to navigate the streets to get to his test.
“[The protocols] are constantly changing,” said Nuggets coach Mike Malone. “Literally, it seems like every day, every other day, there is a new protocol put in place. There's a new testing policy put in place. There's a new, ‘Hey, you’ve got to stay in your house, when you're in your home market.’” Added Suns coach Monty Williams, “Anything you say in regards to that question could come off like you're complaining. It's just different. But it's a different kind of different because there's been inconsistencies in our day.”
It didn’t have to be this way. A bubble is expensive, with the cost of the campus needed to finish last season approaching $180 million. But it’s safe. The integrity of games won’t be compromised. The health of players and staffers won’t be at risk. There are trade-offs. The stress that comes from months of isolation is the big one. But there are no perfect solutions. Only ones that are better than others.
“We were down in the bubble of 83 days,” Malone said. “And the challenge there was, you couldn't see your family. And that is a real challenge, not being able to see for me, my wife, my two daughters, every day. And to be away from them for 83 days is a long time. Now, what you have is, yes, you're able to see your family, but you don't have that safety net of the bubble. The bubble was a safe environment. Not one game was missed due to COVID. Not one player, I believe, tested positive [for] COVID. It was a safe environment.”
“Here, it's not nearly as [safe]. You're kind of out in the open. You're traveling from city to city, and you need players and coaches and staff to be as responsible as possible to try to get through this. So, each had their own challenges in their own different ways. And I think with COVID, whether you're in a bubble, you're out of a bubble, is going to be a challenge, regardless, and I think we're seeing that right now.”
Here’s the thing—a bubble is still an option. The infrastructure is in place. The G League is scheduled to start its season on the Disney campus next month. There are no indications the coronavirus pandemic is going to get better next month. Everyone, from Dr. Anthony Fauci to President Joe Biden, has predicted it is going to get worse. Players clearly aren’t taking the protocols seriously, evidenced by the NBA’s decision to strengthen them. At some point, the restrictions outside a bubble will come close to mirroring the ones in it.
“I would prefer not, but it is what it is,” said Sixers coach Doc Rovers. “I think it would be a little more different. It'd be different this time because going to a bubble from being completely never having dealt with that, then going back, and this is a semi-bubble we're in now. I think it'd be a little easier for the guys, I guess. But I don't think anyone wants to do that again.”
Maybe not. But as COVID-19 cases climb and postponed games pile up, the league may not have a choice.
Not opening the season in a bubble was a mistake.
It’s not too late for the NBA to fix it.