By Griffin Feather
The NBA is back just a few short months since the end of the one-of-a-kind end to the 2020 season. This rapid turnaround, like most things during the pandemic, is unprecedented in major league sports and poses all kinds of questions about the health and safety of the players. But one thing that has gone unchallenged as we look back at the end of the NBA season is this: the NBA bubble of the 2019-2020 season in Orlando was an incredible success; a truly good story in the midst of many terrible ones. Not only did it provide people with a welcome distraction during the monotony of the pandemic, but it also created a sense of normalcy for fans of the game. For many basketball fans like myself, having these games available was one of the best escapes from the toll of lockdown. But what made it work? This simple question is one worth looking into if we want to see more sports leagues return as well and safely as they can.
The reason the bubble can be deemed as a success amid so many terrible outcomes is that there were zero coronavirus cases reported during its entire run. That’s right– zero. Not many organizations or corporations can claim such a miraculous number. Perhaps even more remarkable than that is how the league valued the health and safety of their players. For one, they had daily and organized coronavirus tests for all of the players. This was an essential medical safeguard required for participation in the bubble. If anyone tested positive, all the games would be cancelled. I suspect the reason none of the players tested positive was due to the tight restrictions mandated by the NBA, and, with few exceptions, the cooperation of the players and teams. No player was allowed to leave the bubble, a rule making life difficult for players with families, but it was the first rule to ensure safe play. Once they arrived, they stayed for the duration of their season. This meant that everyone stayed sealed off from society beyond their enclosed NBA world, making it much harder to contract the virus. This was a challenge mentally, emotionally and even physically for the players, as it was an unfamiliar and lonely lifestyle. They were not able to see their loved ones, and didn’t have the freedom they normally would.
That said, there were uspides to the new world they inhabited. Players were able to enjoy time getting to know other players who would usually be far away in different cities. I learned about a lot of bonds created in the bubble experiment, a little gift in a time when most people felt alone. In a comprehensive GQ article on the bubble by Taylor Rooks, I learned that Carmelo Anthony of the Portland Trail Blazers got to spend time with Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers. They talked about their experiences in the league and how their own bubble situations were going. Stories like these showed friendships forged among previous strangers, an unusual thing to happen for people in a pandemic. Additionally, players were able to catch up with members of their old franchises, as well as their former coaches. DeMar DeRozan talked with Masai Ujiri, general manager of his old team, the Raptors, and it makes me wonder what other connections may have been created or reborn in this strange setting.
It also seemed to me that the bubble strengthened individual team bonds. Since they were all living together in this bizarre, high-end summer camp, they had a lot more time to get to know each other. Yet, however great all of these fun and gossipy pieces of the scene were, they were far from the very best thing to come out of the bubble. The goal of the league and commissioner Adam Silver was a certain thing above all else: keep the players one hundred percent healthy and focused on their game. The league implemented protocols and routines related only to basketball and safety, and to their immense credit, it worked.
However, the league now faces a new challenge. This challenge will be the start of the new season, already going strong. There is no more NBA bubble. It was likely an impossible sell to get players to return to bubble life after a mere two-month offseason, so the league went in a different direction. The players will no longer be constantly monitored by the NBA in the way they were in Orlando. This also means they will no longer be isolated and will have some of the freedoms they previously lacked. They will get to see who they want and when they want– within reason– without the monitoring of the NBA. This could become a huge problem, because they will also be traveling city to city instead of staying in one place. The spread of the virus will be much easier in this non-isolated setting. A basketball analyst from the New York Times said, “They will not be playing once a week, as teams do in the NFL. They will not be playing a sport with baked-in social distancing, a la Major League Baseball. They will be playing a game teeming with contact and face-to-face interactions – and, unlike football, baseball and soccer, they will be doing it indoors.” Worth noting too is that the NCAA’s college basketball tournament has just been announced to be fully hosted by Indiana, in, you guessed it, a bubble. For now, I can only hope things in the NBA remain as they did last season: safe, fun, competitive, virus-free, and the best escape from pandemic gloom that I can think of. Long live the NBA, in the bubble or out.