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Podding the Bubble - Part 1: A Deep Dive into the NBA Biosphere

Podding the Bubble is a three-part mini-series taking a deep dive look into the biosphere created by the NBA in Orlando. Part 1 explores how the NBA decided that a bubble was the right solution for them to be able to finish the 2019-2020 NBA season and conduct something resembling a normal playoffs and NBA finals. We'll also get into how the bubble is supposed to work on paper, both for players and basketball staff, as well as for Disney Parks employees, and for journalists.

The following is a full transcript of a podcast episode from the mini-series, Podding the Bubble. Listen to the original audio on the Crossover NBA Podcast, the Open Floor podcast, or the Coronavirus + Sports podcast. Subscribe to all SI podcasts for free wherever you listen to shows.

Chris Mannix: This is history in a lot of ways.

Michael Rosenberg: It'll be something we'll be talking about for a long time.

Ben Golliver: I'll be honest, as a writer, I'm just trying to embrace the weirdness of it, like the more different it is, it's just kind of like lean into it. Like, why not?

Mannix: I think the most significant aspect of creating this environment really was the ability to protect it and the ability to, you know, effectively quarantined hundreds of players, staffers, coaches, media members in one area.

Golliver: The chance for this virus to spread indoors and during a full-contact sport like basketball is very high. So you basically have to shield the players from the outside world.

Dr. Zeke Emanuel: Well, I think it's a risk. And, you know, it's a bubble. And to the extent that you can actually successfully sequester people and keep them inside the bubble, what's happening outside shouldn't matter. That's the whole point of a bubble.

Rohan Nadkarni: One way or another, I think that this bubble is going to serve as an example for how this country needs to move forward. And I think that is really what I'm looking forward to is if it works. Now, we have a concrete example of what wearing masks does. What contact tracing does, what you know, frequent testing does, we need that.

Rosenberg: There's something pure about there's something bizarre about it. I think there's something that's going to make us appreciate everything once it gets back to normal, whenever that is.

Golliver: You go back to 1947. The NBA has crowned a champion every single year since 1947. The only thing worse than an asterisk is an empty place in the record books, right? No champion. And so I think the NBA was really trying hard to avoid that.

Mannix: So what we're going to experience over the next three months is groundbreaking. It's historic.

Luis Miguel-Echegaray: Welcome to a new series from SI, where we dive deep inside the return of the NBA and life inside the bubble. I'm your host, Luis Miguel Echegaray.

Miguel-Echegaray: Over the course of three episodes with the help of our NBA writers and health experts will walk you through the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida. From medical logistics to a player's daily routine. We'll find out how this mammoth project came to be. And perhaps most importantly, we'll ask what the plans are to make sure those who are taking part from players to coaches, reporters and hospitality staff, stay safe.

Miguel-Echegaray: Today on Episode one, how did we get here? What were the NBA plans to even confirm a return to action? And how did the bubble even come to reality? We'll break down the logistics behind the bubble and the intricate medical protocols needed in order to maintain health and safety guidelines. From Sports Illustrated this is podding the bubble.

Miguel-Echegaray: In late May, the NBA began conversations with Disney to tentatively plan a restart of the twenty nineteen twenty twenty season, which had been on hiatus since March 11th. By early June, the plan was set in motion, a concealed campus at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. And like the WNBA and MLS. The plan would have strict social distancing, quarantining and testing rules for players, coaches and staff all isolated from the outside world. In other words, an NBA bubble. Media access inside the bubble is extremely limited. But Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix reports from inside as the NBA prepares for an experiment like no other. We check in with him first to get a lay of the land.

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Miguel-Echegaray: Chris, let's begin with the simple, simple question. Explain to us what the NBA bubble is.

Mannix: Well, the NBA bubble is effectively a area inside the Walt Disney World resorts in central Florida. The NBA has taken over several hotels on the property and created a campus, which is the word they prefer to use as opposed to the bubble. And on this, property, players, coaches, staffers are allowed to basically move around as they want. You know, the entire property which surrounds, you know, kind of a lake in the middle of it is just strictly for use by the NBA. There are no guests here that are out that have not been screened by the NBA. There's no tourists coming through here. It is entirely an NBA operation.

Miguel-Echegaray: Now, as you've been there for a few days, how have you been witnessing what's been going on, as a reporter?

Mannix: It gets off to a weird start. I mean, you get down to Orlando and you are immediately ushered into your hotel room and told you can't step outside for seven days. They make media members do a hard seven day quarantine where they deliver three meals a day to your door. If you want ice, they'll bring it to you. If you want anything, they'll bring it to you. They do not want you stepping outside of that room safe, forgetting, getting your food and taking your daily COVID test. So it's like it's not Shawshank, but it's not, you know, the Ritz Carlton either in this situation.

Golliver: The idea of the bubble is very simple. Once you're in, you can't go outside basically for any reason. So these players are going to be confined to the property of Disney World for up to three months. And I am as well.

Miguel-Echegaray: That's Washington Post national NBA writer Ben Golliver, and the host of SI's Open Floor podcast. Ben is also covering the NBA as we turn to action from inside the bubble.

Golliver: I moved in more than a week ago to a property called The Casitas at Disney World some of your listeners may have actually traveled there on a family vacation. You know, in terms of no outside contact, you're not allowed to kind of get the post mates. We saw a guy busted for that already. You're not allowed to go off campus and come back. If they catch you doing that, you have to go through an extended quarantine period. I mean, they took a number of steps to try to control as many of the risk factors as possible because ultimately they realized this bubble is only as good as the weakest link. If one person screws this thing up, the potential for everybody to get sick increases significantly.

Miguel-Echegaray: If, as Ben says, the bubble is only as strong as its weakest link, then what has the NBA done to make sure it's a strong and unbreakable as possible? Chris and Ben, walk us through exactly how the bubble came to be and how the league has positioned itself for a return to action during a pandemic.

Mannix: It began to crystallize a month or so into this pandemic when it became clear that finishing the season in a traditional way simply wasn't going to be an option. In the NBA before the shutdown had begun to explore the possibility of playing games in empty venues right before the NBA shut down, the Golden State Warriors were prepared to play the Brooklyn Nets in an empty arena in San Francisco. So that was initially something the NBA hoped to accomplish to finish their season in empty arenas. But when we learned more about the Coronavirus and how easily it is transmitted from person to person, the NBA began to focus on the bubble idea.

Golliver: The way they decided to do that was to partner with Disney. Now, obviously, Disney owns ESPN, one of the NBA major television partners. There's more than a billion dollars of television revenue at stake, and that's obviously a big deal. The financial health of the NBA is very, very important. There was a really stark moment back in April when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had a press conference that he slipped it in right at the end. But he's like, hey, guys, our revenues are basically zero right now. And remember, about 40 percent of the league's money comes from, you know, fans attending games, merchandise sales at the games, you know, parking, food and concessions. And when they're looking forward to next season, all that money's essentially gone. They can't bank on it because there's no telling how long this virus will last.

Mannix: You know, the TV money is the lifeblood of the NBA anyway. It accounts for about a third of their basketball related revenue. And without fans, it stands for the foreseeable future. That's all the money that they're they're getting. So accommodate those TV partners was was paramount for them.

Golliver: You know, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex has hosted a bunch of high school college tournaments over the years, AAU tournaments, that kind of a thing. And, you know, they have three different arenas that they can play games at. They're going to be able to put on 10 hours of basketball per day. I mean, you're going to wake up and start watching games at 1:00 p.m. Eastern and you're going to go to watch games all day until basically, you know, eleven or twelve at night.

Mannix: You have to cram in a eight game schedule and then go right into a traditional playoffs. I mean, it was important for the NBA, even though we're doing this under unique circumstances, to have a traditional playoff to protect the integrity of the eventual champion. The NBA does not want an asterisk championship. They do not want any kind of stain on whoever comes out of this as the winner. So one of the complications of making a schedule down here is that it looks strength of schedule matters. You've got teams competing for seating each conference. You've got, you know, really five teams in the Western Conference competing for one playoff spot. You want to make sure the schedule is balanced. So there's all sorts of hurdles. The NBA had to go through in, making its schedule and then dealing with TV partners, giving them what they want, because ultimately, that's why we're here.

Golliver: So what the NBA decided to do is, look, you have to invest a lot of money in the health stuff upfront to get that television pay up. So they're lining up and consider this hundreds of thousands of tests because every player, every staff member and every media member who's here in Disney World is getting tested every single day. I have to go to a testing laboratory. They stick a few chips up my nose and down my throat every single day to get those samples to see if I'm positive or negative. And, you know, of course, also I'm not allowed to leave this property as part of their health plan as well. So they invested a lot of resources up front, hoping that they would be able to keep all their biggest stars healthy and on the court and able to kind of produce a product solely for television. Now, we don't know what their products are going to look like exactly. Obviously, the gyms are going to be empty, which will be a weird situation. But I think when you're comparing, say, the NBA to baseball, which did not pursue a bubble or to the NFL, which really doesn't have much of a health plan at this point or even to some of the other sports in America, the NBA is coming out looking, you know quite well, in part because you look at the stats for people who arrived here in Orlando. Only two of the players who arrived in Orlando have tested positive so far and both were caught during the quarantine period. So that tells you that, you know, they're setup of how they had people travel here, how they did the early testing, how they've communicated the importance of wearing masks. Those kinds of steps have worked and helped keep the players healthy. Now, will that last for three months? That's the billion dollar question that none of us really know. But I think they're off to a fairly good start here.

Miguel-Echegaray: When recounting the creation of the bubble, there's also an elephant in the room. And that's the broader public health crisis in the United States, which has taken a dramatic turn for the worse in Florida. Ben Golliver had great insight into this situation.

Golliver: The Florida aspect is fascinating to me in kind of a dark way. But when they chose Disneyworld back in May, Florida had less than a thousand cases per day. So the Coronavirus actually wasn't in that bad of a spot here, at least as far as we knew, based on the numbers that Florida was reporting. If you fast forward to now, it's a regular that there are over 10000 cases per day, which is basically as bad as it was at the peak of New York City or pretty close. Right. So this situation from when the NBA made its determination to now has completely taken off in Florida, like the facts on the ground changed dramatically. And they did have to kind of choose, hey, do we want to be going down here despite these challenges? And I think ultimately they realized they had no other alternate venue. They were they already pot-committed to coming down here.

Golliver: There was a major ethical question back in March when Rudy go bare burse tested positive. The Oklahoma Department of Health gave more than 40 tests. The Utah Jazz and their staffers to basically see did anybody come into contact with Rudy go bare. At that same time, we reported at The Washington Post there was an EMT who showed every single symptom of covered, who was seriously ill and was not able to get a test. And the Oklahoma Department of Health had chosen to give the test that they did have, which they didn't have, very many of them. They gave a large chunk of them to basketball players who were asymptomatic and weren't in serious danger at that point. That was a very questionable decision. The NBA took a lot of heat for being in the middle of that spot. And I think rightfully so. What the NBA decided to do after that was essentially privatize all the testing. So they're encouraging teams initially to pay for all the tests and then also they started paying for their tests as well. So everything that the testing that's being done here is all private. Ultimately, the NBA's decision was, look, you know, we're not going to be able to wait for the country to figure out universal access to testing and regular testing. So we're just going to do it for ourselves and so be it. I think that to me, that's a little bit of a better ethical situation than taking public resources, but at the same time, there's no question about it. It's a complete privilege to be able to be tested as often as we are here within the bubble. And the average person, especially the average person in Florida right now, does not have access to the same level of testing and care.

Miguel-Echegaray: This may seem like a stupid question, maybe not. But why? Why Florida? Why not Vegas? Why not? Another area is the answer as simple as well. Disney runs the show and therefore money speaks or was there more to it than that?

Golliver: No, I think it's Mickey Mouse, man. I think that's exactly what it is.

Miguel-Echegaray: TV revenue is the financial incentive and strict testing and social distancing are the guidelines, especially in a state that has struggled to contain the coronavirus. But what about the players themselves who assume the largest burden of risk by stepping onto the court? How was the planning been for them? And now that they're here? What comes next? Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Rosenberg weighs in.

Rosenberg: This is really from the beginning, been a joint operation between the NBA and the players association. It's not been contentious, it's not been, we want this, you want that. It's all a negotiation. There's been a real fundamental understanding within that league. That they need to all work together, and they do have the same goal, which is to finish the season and keep everybody safe.

Miguel-Echegaray: Do you think that because of the support of the players, ultimately, that was a major, major point in making sure that this happened.

Rosenberg: Yeah, if they didn't have Buy-In from players. I mean, that is a league where players have felt empowered for a long time now. If they weren't comfortable, if they didn't feel safe, they would have said so. And that really never came up. I mean, it came up in the NFL recently to a degree more than it's come up with the NBA, even though they're further along and closer to playing their season. The players have been on board. And I think that goes back to sort of the seeds that were planted by Adam Silver before all this and that. They do have faith in him to do the right thing. They understand he represents ownership, but they also trust him. They understand that, his heart is in the right place and that he does not want to put them at risk and that there is just not that trust between the NFL and the NFLPA. There is certainly not that trust between the MLB and the MLBPA. And that's been a big part of why so far this has been smooth for the NBA.

Golliver: Ultimately, the players had to go along with this proposal right? They were sort of, you know, the check and a balance at every step of the way.

Mannix: That the second LeBron decided to play, most everybody else was going to play. I think Patrick Beverley of the Clippers had a tweet that something up bases saying if Bron's going, we're all going.

Golliver: Ultimately, what they did was they allowed each team to bring thirty-five people, including the players. That's a very strict limit. A lot of teams had a hard time choosing which assistant coaches or which trainers. I mean who all do you bring? But there was no exceptions to that list. It was a hard thirty five.

Mannix: Media is quarantined to one specific section of the property. We can't bounce around and interact with players and coaches in their designated areas.

Golliver: There is a bubble within the bubble for players. In other words, I can't just go walk over to the players' hotel. I can't go walk over to you know, to their floor. I'm not able to go rent a bike the same place they can rent a bike. I can't even walk out onto this bridge where they go fishing because they have sort of sealed the media off, you know, from the players.

Rosenberg: They knew they would have positive tests when they got down there. They need to get through that and get everyone in the bubble and then start having no positive tests. They have gotten there with that.

Golliver: Players get tested every single day. So that's number one. The second part is that there's careful health monitoring. So not only the players, but also media members will take a questionnaire every single morning to report whether they have any symptoms. There will also provide their temperature and they will provide a pulse ox reading, basically different ways to just measure how are you doing on a day to day basis? They require mass on campus. They require social distancing. I actually have a little buzzer on my credential. So if I get too close to someone and stand there for 10 seconds, it will start to beep like a smoke detector, and I need to back away to make sure that I'm keeping the appropriate social distance. The housekeepers who are going to come and tend to the rooms, they wear masks and gloves, as do all the Disney staffers, including the security staffers here on campus. But they're only in the room when the players are out of practice or out at a game. They're not allowed to be in the room simultaneously. Again, that's just a step to protect the players.

Miguel-Echegaray: Chris, did you think that there was a period when this was maybe not even going to happen?

Mannix: I don't think this was never going to happen. I just think there's too much money at stake for the league for this to not happen. And even though there were a lot of players that considered not coming and several players that ultimately decided not to, for various reasons, the vast majority of the rank and file of the players were in favor of doing this, as long as the NBA could prove that they could protect them and that their health and safety wouldn't be at risk. The players were for it like they were willing to do, you know, what the NBA asked them to do?

Golliver: They're taking all those precautions because they want the actual gameplay itself to be as normal as possible, right. If you have players trying to play in masks, that's just not really going to fly with the players or with the audience, right. If you have people saying, hey sorry, you've got to be socially distanced on defense, well we're gonna see a lot of wide-open three-pointers, right. So there's certain things that they had to kind of workaround.

Rosenberg: I think that they've done a good job. Now, whether this works or not, nobody really knows. And Adam Silver has been upfront with them.

Mannix: I don't think this was ever in danger, even as the virus has, you know, ramped up in multiple states, including the one I'm in right now in Florida. I just think the NBA believes they create a safe bubble. And because of that, they were just moving forward from the day they decided to.

Miguel-Echegaray: We all have complicated thoughts about the return of sports in a pandemic, especially when it comes in a state that's not fully in control. And we'll get to that, we promise. But today was about the NBA and the intricate, gigantic project that was in the works in order to turn the bubble into a reality. And for that, Adam Silver, the league, teams, and players deserve a lot of credit.

Miguel-Echegaray: On the next episode of Podding the Bubble...

Yeah man got a little set up here, got a nice little view here.

Bubble is what you make it man.

Miguel-Echegaray: It's time to find out what life is like inside. How does it work when you have to live, work, and train inside a resort complex for months? How do athletes spend their time when they're not playing or training? From creating social media videos to fishing and blogging and even video gaming. We'll take a look at this campus-like community. And most importantly, can everyone follow the rules and keep the bubble intact?