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Podding the Bubble - Part 2: Will the NBA Players Go Stir Crazy?

Podding the Bubble is a three-part mini-series taking a deep dive look into the biosphere created by the NBA in Orlando. Part 2 follows the lives of the NBA players inside the bubble who now face a unique challenge. How do they stave off restlessness and cabin fever for three months while living inside the bubble through the rest of the season and the playoffs? Not to mention, they still have to find a way to play their best basketball.

The following is a partial 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.

Jarrel Harris: The NBA has been one of the most vocal sports leagues in the world.

Luis Miguel Echegaray: Here is Jarrel Harris, NBA editor and writer for Sports Illustrated.

Jarrel Harris: We've seen guys wearing the Trayvon Martin gear back in 2014 with the Miami Heat and the Eric Garner shirts like I Can't Breathe. So they've always been very critical of all these moments. And I think all the NBA players are doing a great job for keeping the movement alive, like Tobias Harris, Marcus Smart, Jerami Grant doing these interviews, they want to keep it, keep the focus on Brianna Taylor. So I think they're doing a great job. And I think they're keeping the NBA on its toes and making sure they get all their messages out.

Ben Golliver: These guys know there's a ton of eyeballs on them. The guys are going to have some of the slogans on their jerseys, right. Black Lives Matter and things of that nature. They're going to be having the opportunity to wear that on their jerseys. The courts are going to be painted with Black Lives Matter insignia.

Rohan Nadkarni: I think the players have done a good job of maintaining the awareness of these issues. You know, the league I think it's been a little clunky so far how they've handled it. I think that they are a willing partner to the players in this kind of movement. At the same time, you know, letting players put messages on the back of the jersey, you know, that's such a restrictive list. I don't know that that is going to land as great as the league would hope. It's not an insignificant step. You know, it's not nothing. The visibility is important, but I think the focus needs to be on what actionable steps is the league willing? Are they able to take moving forward to really kind of put their money where their mouth is for this movement as a whole?

Luis Miguel Echegaray: Do you think that's going to happen? Are you optimistic about the action that will follow the message?

Rohan Nadkarni: I'm a little optimistic, if only because I think the players are going to continue to put pressure on the league. You know, obviously right now the NBA is dealing with a million logistical issues every day, trying to get their season back off the ground. So, unfortunately, you know, it sounds crass to say I don't know where the social justice stuff falls in their list of priorities when just trying to make sure everyone is safe and healthy right now. But I do think that eventually they will come around to making sure that there are proper actions.

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Jarrel Harris: I think the reaction has been fairly well like compared to like other like sports leagues and fans like especially in the NFL. It's like two different worlds compared to the NBA when it comes to these issues. And I'm just proud of like all NBA players first, like stepping up like we have great role models like LeBron. You have Samarius Harris stepping up now and seeing all the young guys especially, come out in these interviews and say, I'm just going to keep the focus on Brionna, Taylor and Black Lives Matter. So it's great seeing that from my side of things.

Luis Miguel Echegaray: We've talked a lot about what the player's life looks like off the court as they get acclimated to life within the bubble, as well as the backdrop of social issues that players have used this opportunity to keep in the public discourse. It's an interesting, complex situation, further complicated by the fact that as all of this unfolds, NBA games will need to be played. So what kind of product will the NBA be putting on the courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex? How are the players responding to this change? And is the league leaning into the weirdness of the situation or trying to replicate a normal game environment? Chris Mannix and Ben Golliver break down what they've seen so far from the action on the court inside the bubble.

Chris Mannix: You know, the basketball experience, while certainly unique, is not one that's been uncomfortable for many of the players that I've talked to. It certainly is an adjustment as you step out onto the floor. And instead of seeing a crowd, you see giant screens that flanked the baseline and that are behind the scores table and the bench. But once they get to the flow of the game, for a lot of the guys that I've talked that have played so far, it just does feel like it's basketball.

Ben Golliver: It won't feel like the normal playoffs and there won't be fans, which is going to be easily the biggest difference, right? Because playoff basketball gets intense, the places get loud. These arenas are going to have basically two dozen people in them.

Chris Mannix: For the bench, it becomes part of your responsibility to provide energy for your team. Usually that energy is provided by the fans and the people in the building, without anybody in the building, players have to be much more vocal and much more supportive of their teams in certain situations. I mean, I talked to Lou Williams at the Clippers right after his game, he had lost his voice after just one game because he was so loud on that bench. He said that was something that was going to be an adjustment. They pipe in a lot of organ noise or music. There is the digital drumbeat of defense that's played on opposite possessions. There's music played on offensive possessions for the other team, as you would often have in NBA arenas. It's not like it's an empty gym with no sounds where you hear everything. There's going to be a lot that's covered. It's probably intentional, you know, by the by the NBA with the music in the background. The league is still in an experimental phase with all this, trying to see what works and, you know, what just comes off as goofy. And one of the things they'd like to do, is to have fans that are watching these games via Zoom for the home team, and have them up on the screen behind the scores table, and maybe all the screens. Frankly, you know watching the game to have it kind of be an interactive experience, they think that's going to work. Maybe there could be hundreds or thousands of fans of the, quote, home team that will be able to watch via Zoom like they're in the arena.

Ben Golliver: The format is the typical four rounds of best of seven series. There's no home court, but obviously if you're the better team, the higher seed, you're going to get to start, quote-unquote, at home. They will use a play-in game to determine the eighth seed if it's close enough between the eighth and ninth seed to warrant. So that's a little bit of an incentive for some of the teams they invited down here to have a shot at making the playoffs. Ultimately, they brought 22 teams down here. They did that because they wanted to be able to play regular season games and because they wanted to just increase the total number of games they were going to try to televise. You know, obviously, more games, more money, and that helps pay for this entire project. Those teams that are like the six that are currently outside the playoffs will need to get within four games of the eighth seed to qualify for a play-in tournament. They'll have to be the ninth seed to do that. So it's a little bit of a twist. We'll see if that winds up being interesting or if he wins a ball, just kind of being, you know, a bunch of hot air. But ultimately, by mid-August, they will be starting the playoffs with 16 teams like normal, eight from each conference and proceeding forward to crowning a champion. And it will take them until mid-October if all goes right to crown their champion.

Chris Mannix: I think it's going to work. I think it's certainly going to be different. But I think what helps is that the league is not requiring these players to play in cavernous arenas or stadiums. I mean, the digital technology is quite literally on top of them. Like these screens are right behind where the players sit on the bench. The baseline screens are just, you know, 10, 15 feet behind the baskets. So it's a very enclosed space that the league is playing in. That makes it feel almost like a practice facility. I think it's going to make it a lot easier for these games to be played and for the players to adjust. I mean look, there'll be a mental hurdle. The players that are going to have are going to have to get past, especially as we get deeper into this process.

Chris Mannix: But for now, it seems like everything is breaking the right way for the NBA, whether it's the negative testing that's going on or the facilities that they've constructed, three of them that are able to house these games.

Luis Miguel Echegaray: Life inside the bubble is like the bubble itself, delicate, but also extremely unique. There is a Truman Show quality to it as we in the outside world inspect every move, every action, and every decision. Thanks to the overwhelming amount of content. But we as NBA fans and most importantly, human beings have to be careful in making sure we don't finger point this rare scenario. Players are people after all, and they are bound to make mistakes. And when people leave their families for three months and only have limited access to some kind of living inside a complex, then certain issues are bound to happen. Health and safety above anything else. But after that, embracing the weirdness of the bubble might be as important as the games themselves.