Sports

The Bizarre Stories of Everyday Life Within the NBA Bubble

From peanut butter dinners to tracking rings to botched deliveries to the best testing system in Florida.

A near-empty basketball court with a Jumbotron overhead broadcasting the NBA logo.
A near-empty basketball court in Sacramento on March 10.* Reuters Marketplace–Abaca Pictures/Paul Kitagaki Jr./Zuma Wire/DPA/TNS

Back in March, the original 2020 NBA season ended with a thud: The Utah Jazz were set to play the Oklahoma City Thunder when, suddenly, just before tipoff, the medical staff cleared the court because a player, Rudy Gobert, had just tested positive for COVID-19. To adjust, the NBA has now built a bubble in the middle of Walt Disney World, where 22 NBA teams are set to resume their 2020 season next week. Before they can do that, anyone and everyone who is associated with the league has been locked down in a kind of luxury quarantine.

If the league resumes as planned in Disney World next week, it will be the first NBA game in more than 140 days, and the rest of the season will be played in the bubble, where players and staff will have little to no interaction with the outside world. They’re expecting to remain inside the bubble until October. The NBA announced that, since July 13, the bubble has been coronavirus-free, for the players at least. What remains unknown is how long that can last.

On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Ben Golliver, a basketball reporter for the Washington Post, about daily life inside the bubble, how ethical it was to build this in the first place, and whether this bubble is destined to burst.

Mary Harris: What the NBA built in Orlando has been called its “bubble.” But you say it’s actually more than that.

Ben Golliver: It’s really a bubble within a bubble because the NBA is going to restrict our access to where players are able to go. For example, I can see one of the players’ hotels across this lake. But there are going to be security checkpoints barring reporters from going anywhere near that players’ hotel, because they want to keep outside access to the players as limited as possible.

My life for the past week has been pacing back and forth in my hotel room, trying to get my steps and then doing a heck of a lot of interviews from people all around the world who are like, Why are you so crazy? Why have you decided to do this with your life?

What’s the No. 1 question you get?

I think the No. 1 question is: How is the food?

You’re vegetarian, so … not great?

I ordered 64 ounces of peanut butter off Amazon within 24 hours of getting here. Thankfully, that arrived. So that’s been my sustenance, and it’s been carrying me quite well for this week.

I’m imagining you like Pooh Bear with a spoon and a big jar of peanut butter.

Oh, for sure. And sometimes you just skip the spoon—just dip the bread right in there as quickly as you can.

You talked to all these experts before you came down to Florida. Was there a consensus, or was there a moment with one of those physicians that stood out to you when they said something that shaped your decision?

I would say that in general, everybody gave the thumbs-up. They wanted to know how the testing was going to work, how regular it was going to be, how quickly the results were going to come back. I think what they were concerned about was if you’re not getting your result for four or five days or seven days and you’re walking around having potential contact with other people in the bubble—then your risk could be pretty high. The way the NBA’s testing program works is we get our results back within 15 hours. So there is a real, psychic benefit to knowing that you’re negative and you’re going to probably be negative again the next day. It builds some peace of mind over time.

It’s interesting that the doctors brought up the speed of testing as such an important element for them, because that’s become part of the controversy of what’s happening in the bubble: Folks like you are getting quick coronavirus test results regularly, whereas people in Florida have had a much harder time getting quick test results. And of course, Florida is in the middle of this massive surge of coronavirus cases.

Absolutely. There is no question that this is an incredible privilege, to be down here and to have this level of care. The Post is paying tens of thousands of dollars for me to be here for the next three months. And within that price is not only the hotel room but also the testing program. This care is not available to the average American.

You have to remember, there are basically more than a thousand people in the bubble currently: players, coaches, team executives, medical staffers, the league’s media partners. So they’re using tens of thousands of tests, if not more than 100,000 tests, over the course of the next three months to get this thing done.

A hundred thousand tests?

Ballpark, but you know, it all adds up. Everybody needs to test every single day to try to keep this thing tight.

This gold-plated health care has become an issue. From the beginning of this outbreak, basketball players have found themselves at the front of the line for coronavirus testing. The league seems to simply be paying for access.

If you rewind back to March and April, one of the go-to lines was, We don’t want to do anything that’s taking away from the ability of average people to get their health care. And in this situation, the NBA decided, if it’s a choice between we can go forward with our business and try to recoup this money or we have to sit on the sidelines and wait for the federal government to solve the testing situation—executives decided they weren’t ready to wait for that, and they actually wanted to hold their own testing program to a higher standard than the government’s. I do understand why people would be upset.

Did any players refuse to come?

Yes, multiple players refused to come. Many needed convincing, or they waffled back and forth. It was a situation where there were questions not only about the health and safety aspect but also the quality-of-life aspect of being away from your friends and family for up to three months. A number of the players had been leaders in the social justice movement and they were worried, If we’re stuck in Orlando, we’re not going to be able to do what we need to do in terms of marching in the streets or being those kinds of voices. So there were a number of player concerns that had to be addressed before they ultimately came together and the majority of the players decided to come down here and play.

Now, in terms of the specifics of the protocols in place, a big thing is obviously disinfecting and keeping teams separate from one another as much as possible. Teams are living on different floors. They’re encouraged to only eat together and intermingle if they are outdoors. They have to wear masks basically at all times when they’re not playing. During the games, coaches and people who aren’t playing will be wearing masks and seated at some level of a distance.

The specifics here are so striking. You’ll have these wristbands, and you may have a proximity alarm. So whenever you get within 6 feet of someone, it’ll go off and warn you that you need to back off a little bit. And teams have to brief the players about on-court behaviors that could increase risk of coronavirus spread: Players will be discouraged from licking their fingers or spitting or clearing their nose or touching their mouth guard. If you’ve watched an NBA game, these guys are constantly touching themselves and one another. And I had to wonder, looking at these regulations, what is basketball going to look like?

I mean, the idea is you can never get the risk to zero, right? So you just need to take the obvious steps to reduce it as much as you possibly can. They’re also equipping players, if they want, with a medical tracking ring. They can wear it basically at all times. Besides, when they’re in the games, it will provide real-time medical updates—

Like temperature and oxygen levels?

Yep. And the idea there is, again, maybe you are being proactive in identifying symptoms that the player doesn’t notice before he does.

But there are very few things these guys are going to be allowed to do. You’ve seen them golfing, you’ve seen them fishing—they’re kind of turning to lawn sports. They’ve tried to think of absolutely everything. In one situation, this one guy tried to order Postmates and go down by the hotel entrance and evade security a little bit to get his delivery. He was caught doing that and sent back to a 10-day quarantine period. These rules are strict, and they’re strict for a reason. For the players who have really big salaries or the teams that are expecting to make a deep run and challenge for a title, I expect the peer pressure within those groups is going to be very high. Everybody needs to stick to the rules together because otherwise this whole thing could get ruined by the weakest link.

I can tell that you’re an optimist.

I’ll say that because I was very skeptical before I came down here and I had lots of questions. To me, it seemed like an unnecessary risk. Once you’re getting down here and you’re actually going through the regimented testing process, it provides a peace of mind, even more so than when I was at home in Los Angeles because I was not getting tested every single day. I didn’t know what my status was. I also think this campus feels a lot like a college campus during summer break or maybe like during a session where there’s only 10 percent of the people here. These hotels can host tens of thousands of people on a regular basis. And there are no outside tourists. This is all NBA personnel. So even though there are a thousand people from the NBA down here, it still feels very empty. It’s not like you’re getting into crowded elevators and you’re worried about someone coughing on you. It’s relatively sprawling and spread out.

Do you think the bubble will hold?

I cannot control 300-plus NBA players and how they want to spend their free time. I think that I am more optimistic now than I was before I got here. I think the risk here is lower significantly than it is in outside society. It’s not zero, though, and that’s the part that is the most difficult to predict. But the tricky part is they’re going to be here for three months. It’s a long time. A lot of things can go wrong and change during that time period. But personally, I’m very confident they’re going to be able to start games later this month and continue forward for the foreseeable future.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Correction, July 23, 2020: Due to a photo provider error, the caption originally misidentified the location of the arena. It is in Sacramento, not Los Angeles.