Sports

The NBA Bubble Was Good

Not just for basketball, but for life.

LeBron James embraces Anthony Davis on the court, both smiling
LeBron James and Anthony Davis after winning the 2020 NBA Championship in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, on Sunday. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers closed down the NBA bubble on Sunday, running away with the NBA Finals in a Game 6 blowout of the Miami Heat. The Lakers’ title-clenching win was an anticlimactic cap of what Dan Devine of the Ringer called “the most chaotic, unprecedented and unforgettable season in NBA history.” The NBA postponed its season for four months because of the pandemic, had its first wildcat strike for racial justice in recent memory, and watched its presumptive favorites, the Bucks and the Clippers, implode in the conference semifinals. The most predictable thing about the NBA was how it ended the season, with LeBron James and the Lakers as champions.

On this week’s Hang Up and Listen, Joel Anderson, Stefan Fatsis, and the New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas look back on the bubble—why it worked so well, why it was so much fun, and why what happened inside was ultimately about a lot more than basketball. A portion of that conversation is transcribed below; it has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Joel Anderson: Louisa, your lead for the New Yorker was: “The 2019–20 NBA season ended as everyone always knew it would: in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, in October, with J.R. Smith taking off his shirt.” But other than shirtless J.R. Smith, what will you remember most from this one-of-a-kind basketball season?

Louisa Thomas: In some ways, I think it’s fitting that my lasting impression of the end of it is going to be J.R. Smith, because there’s something about the concentrated format and the fact that everyone was there that really provided a showcase for some of the league’s most vivid personalities, especially among its superstars. It seemed like every week there was someone exciting to follow. It was Damian Lillard just draining long 3s. It was Luka Dončić. It was the dynamic between Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. It was Anthony Davis. It was LeBron James. It was Jimmy Butler. I mean, every week, it sort of seemed like there was someone everyone was talking about, everyone was excited about. And I’m not going to lie. I had a lot of reservations about the construction of this bubble, but it did bring me a little bit of joy in a time in which I felt like I needed it. So, I’m going to be grateful for that.

Stefan Fatsis: You know, it brought us joy, and it also brought stability. I think in retrospect what we’re going to remember about this season was, yes, LeBron James defining again his own greatness, doing it with a third team, doing it under these insane circumstances. But we’re also going to remember the fact that somebody was able to do something successfully during the pandemic. The NBA had no positive tests. The bubble was psychologically debilitating on everybody that was in there, but everybody also persevered and got it done. It was America as America, as we would hope it would be during a crisis. It took the riches of the NBA to make this happen, and that’s obviously exclusionary for much of the rest of the country. But at the same time, they did it, and they did it right, and it worked.

Anderson: Right. I mean, that’s the kind of American exceptionalism you’d hope that we could take our examples from. The NBA coming together, people with all these differing interests coming together for a common cause, prevailing in some sort of way. I can’t think of another league other than—the WNBA, I guess. The NHL pulled it off a little bit as well. But it’s just shocking because the NFL is the league with all the resources, the attention of America, and they’re going through their thing right now.

But for me, at the end of the game, I really just got to thinking about how incredibly lucky the NBA is to have LeBron as the face of the league. He’s this unprecedented athlete who came in with unprecedented hype. He became a voice. He developed a little bit of charisma because, I mean, if you remember those early LeBron ads, he was a little stiff. But he’s come around on that, and he’s just divisive enough to be interesting but with no hint of scandal. There’s no gambling thing with him. There’s no any of the other stuff that has come around with other stars. So the NBA won’t have this again, and they really need to appreciate it.

Thomas: On giving credit to the NBA as a model for the rest of us: While I totally share that view, it’s a little bit like saying we should be more like Denmark. There are certain advantages. The NBA is smaller than let’s say the NFL. It didn’t have to do an entire season and also has very smart coherent leadership and buy-in from the players. It really is an argument for culture, the fact that all the players bought in from the start. There was maybe a little bit of somebody crossed the line, picking up some takeout or whatever. Maybe someone went to a gentleman’s club when he shouldn’t have. But aside from these couple of prominent examples, really everyone bought in. No one was saying, “Do we really need to be doing this?” Or if they were saying it, they were saying it quietly enough that it never made it out into the press. I thought that that was really impressive. But I also think it’s worth noting that the NBA has had certain structural advantages and certain cultural advantages that other leagues and other parts of our society don’t have.

Anderson: Some of that is that they trust their leadership. The workforce trusts the leadership, and the leadership trusts the workforce. That’s not necessarily anything that’s going on in a lot of other institutions across our country.

Fatsis: Right. And I think it’s not fashionable to praise sports commissioners, but in the case of the NBA, Adam Silver has demonstrated over the last few years since he took over from David Stern that he is thoughtful, that he is likable, and that he is agreeable to conversation, to negotiation, to listening to his constituents, to listening to the employees in this league who are the players.

Ben Golliver in the Washington Post did the best summation of the bubble life and the end of the bubble. He points out that there was a personal kindness, in his words, to the way the NBA leadership responded to players and journalists and staff who made the bubble work. He said that it’s difficult to articulate that without sounding like you’re a victim of Stockholm syndrome, but it’s true. The NBA had billions of dollars at its disposal to enact an operation like the bubble, but it seems like they used them judiciously in the service of the players and in the service of the fans, too.

Anderson: Getting back to the game, did you all see Game 5? Maybe I’ve seen better games, but in terms of individual spectacle, I can’t ever remember a time when I’ve seen anything like that.

Fatsis: We were not expecting Jimmy Butler to be the equal of LeBron James in terms of taking a team, putting it on his back, and bringing it within a couple of games of winning a championship. That Game 5, that was a remarkable game.

Thomas: I felt like it also did help explain why they were doing this, in some sense. It was such a great example of what the best of sports can be. I wasn’t watching that thinking, like, Well, there are 200,000 people … I mean, all of the context really matters throughout this, but it was such a vivid, individual example of how much fun and how important feeling, actually … even though there’s, in some sense, nothing at stake—it felt like there was something really important and human going on in that game.

Fatsis: I think that that was an important aspect of the whole experience. It humanized the players. We got to see them performing, not in the usual way, where they put on suits after the game and depart in a limo and we think that they’re living in this rarefied world. But we got to see them as stuck in this place that any of us would struggle to endure for two or three months. We also got to see them devoting, because they were in this concentrated environment, a lot of their efforts to what they all said and demonstrated really mattered to them, which was having a voice on social justice issues.

Anderson: We got to see Paul George talk about the mental toll of being in the bubble. We got to see Jamal Murray after that game he had in the Western Conference semifinals collapse to his knees emotionally and all of these other moments that you typically don’t get when you’re just watching basketball. When you’re just watching TNT and you’re watching ESPN during the playoffs, that kind of stuff doesn’t come up. But this was definitely a unique experience. Even the footage of them walking off the floor for the strike, watching the Bucks leave the floor, that’s something that we’ll never forget.

And actually, it will be really interesting to see what the NBA does for an encore here, because I imagine trying to convince everybody to get back into a bubble for months at a time is going to be impossible. It was so emotionally draining. You almost think that maybe they should just wait it out and see where are we going from here on out, because trying to top that, trying to recapture what they were able to pull off here the last few months—it just doesn’t seem like it will be possible.

Thomas: It is true, and I also think that’s a really important point, that one of the things they succeeded in was not just showcasing the basketball on the court but really demonstrating that these were complex, thoughtful people. And also that there wasn’t that reality TV aspect where you felt everything was done for the cameras. They were living literally in a TV set, but on the other hand, I think the strike and the drama that surrounded it and the players meeting and things like that was evidence that these were people who were actually seriously grappling with very real issues and really feeling things and really trying to think through things and learning.

Fatsis: We saw that with the strike, but we also saw that with the continued articulation of genuine goals and policy ideals from so many players led by LeBron James. LeBron not only did something on the court to cement his legacy as the greatest or second-greatest player. … Who cares? But he was able to sort of carry the burden of being the spokesman for the players on this monumental social justice effort.

Anderson: Yeah. I mean, he’s clearly been positioning himself to take on that role for years. You can see that there probably is a little bit of a generational divide, though, because some of the younger players did not want to play, like the Kyrie Irving or Jaylen Brown, who were a little bit more skeptical of the NBA owners and their intentions and following up on the things that they said they would do. But LeBron, in terms of growing into his voice, has just been amazing. I mean, there’s no reason for him to be as good at any of this stuff as he is. You know what I mean? It’s not like he had Grant Hill’s background, where he grew up under Wellesley and Yale graduates and had all this other stuff. He came into this on his own. It would be enough if he was just playing basketball and was just like, “I try to stay out of politics” or whatever. But he’s actually just decided to stick his face into the buzzsaw, which says something about him and says something about the people around him, who he’s had to surround himself with.

And one other quick thing: I would say that, to circle back to what we said about getting a chance to view the players, I think the players have always been like this. I think that they’ve always been active within their communities. I mean, studies always show that Black athletes, Black men, are always active in the communities in terms of giving back money, time, all this other sort of things.

Thomas: Before the resumption of the season, LeBron announced that he was starting this organization More Than a Vote that was focused on combating voter suppression, particularly among African American communities. And it was the kind of thing that LeBron does. He steps in. He creates this community of celebrities and throws some money at a problem, and it was splashy. I didn’t really think too much of it. Then I also had a little bit of skepticism during the walkout or the wildcat strike which he tried to turn into … The compromise that they came to basically was that the stadiums were going to be polling places, and there was going to be a little bit more concentration on what was his issue. It’s obviously crucially important. But there was a little bit of dissonance between the action that the Milwaukee Bucks had taken and where it ended up. That said, I think I saw some stat—the [National Basketball Players Association] had some understanding about very low voter registration numbers among NBA players coming into this summer. I think it’s now at above 80 percent, and on some teams it’s 100 percent. I really think that there’s this new understanding, not just about what’s happening at the presidential level, but on local levels as well. I think that those conversations are only happening because LeBron started them in a lot of ways. I think that impact is pretty clear, and those statistics are probably as important as any triple-double he pulled off.

Listen to an episode of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.