Inside the NBA Bubble

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S1: When I called up Bengalla over this weekend, he was alone, sitting in a hotel room in Florida. This room had the standard setup, two beds and a window that looked out on a little fountain. There was only one catch. When was the last time you left your room?

S2: So I have not left my room since I arrived. Sunday, one week ago. As we’re talking, I’m counting down the minutes. I have one hour until they’ve promised to bring me my credential and to set me free from my room. It will be the first time I’ve kind of had outside contact or been able to go at least more than one step outside of my hotel room door in a solid week.

S1: Ben’s a basketball reporter, writes for The Washington Post, hosts a bunch of basketball podcasts. This hotel room has been stuck in. It’s in the middle of Walt Disney World, which is where 22 NBA teams are set to resume their 2020 season next week. But before they do that, everyone and anyone who’s associated with the league has been locked down in a kind of luxury quarantine, including Ben.

S2: My life for the last week has been pacing back and forth in my hotel room, trying to get my steps and then, you know, 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?

S1: What’s the number one question you got?

S2: I think the number one question is how is the food for Ben, who is vegetarian?

S1: The answer to this question is not great.

S2: So I ordered 64 ounces of peanut butter off Amazon within 24 hours of getting here. Thankfully, that arrived. And so that’s been my sustenance and it’s been carrying me quite well.

S1: I got to say, for this week, I’m imagining you like pooh bear with like a spoon and like a big jar of peanut butter.

S2: Oh, for sure. And sometimes you just skip the spoon. You know, you just dip the bread right in there, like, as quickly as you can.

S1: What the National Basketball Association has built in Orlando, it’s been called the NBA bubble. Ben says it’s actually more than that.

S2: You know, everybody talks about the NBA is bubble, but it’s really a bubble within a bubble because there are going to still restrict our access to where players are able to go. So, for example, I can see one of the players hotels across this lake and it’s not a very big lake. I could see it. I could walk over there in five minutes. But there’s going to be security checkpoints barring reporters from going anywhere near that player’s hotel because they want to keep the outside access to the players as limited as possible. One way I’ve put it is like they’re sort of the protons, right? And I’m the electrons. Right. So they’re trying to keep their try to keep that nucleus real tight. They don’t. And everybody else can bounce around outside. That’s fine, Ben.

S1: And all these basketball players, they’re going to be living in this makeshift biosphere for three months, hunkering down, trying to avoid the corona virus.

S2: You have to remember there’s basically more than a thousand people in the bubble currently. When you’re adding up players, coaches, you know, team executives, medical staffers near the league’s media partners have to broadcast this thing on ESPN. So they’re using tens of thousands, if not more than one hundred thousand tests over the course of the next three months.

S1: Take 100000 tests.

S2: It’s a large scale operation. I mean, that’s just a ballpark. But, you know, it all adds up. Everybody needs a test every single day to try to keep this thing tight.

S1: So today on the show, we’re going to ask how ethical is it to build a bubble in the first place? And is this bubble destined to burst? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. Back in March, the original 20/20 NBA season ended with a thud. You might remember what happened. The Utah Jazz were set to play the Oklahoma City Thunder. The arena was packed when suddenly, just before tipoff, the medical staff cleared the court because a player, Rudy Go Bare, had just tested positive for kov.

S3: It is due to unforeseen circumstances. The game tonight has been postpone your.

S2: And the NBA, you know, within, you know, an hour or so indefinitely suspended this season. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver put out that statement saying, you know, we’re we’re off. We don’t know how long we’re off. In the days that followed, he was hoping it might just be for weeks or it might be six weeks. That’s what we’re all hoping. Yeah, everybody was open that and you became clear this is going to be a possibility of not having a playoffs. And the NBA has crowded champion every single year since 1957. So the history was weighing on this decision. Billions of dollars of revenue from the television networks were hanging on this decision. And yet ultimately, he decided to pull the plug because he didn’t feel like it was they knew enough about the virus so they could keep the players safe.

S1: The NBA shut down ended up lasting a lot longer than six weeks. If the league resumes as planned next week, it’ll be the first NBA game for more than 140 days. The rest of the season will be played inside the bubble, where players and staff will have little to no interaction with the outside world. They’re expecting to remain quarantined until October. I just have to wonder if you had any apprehension flying in. I mean, had you left your home since the beginning of lockdown?

S2: So I was in Los Angeles where I live. I started at basically a home bubble, like I like to call it, you know, one man bubble where I was not leaving for basically any reason. I mean, to get everything would be delivered. Thankfully, at my employment was in a good situation. I didn’t have to go out to do reporting. And so I was going for a daily walks around my neighborhood now is pretty much the only time I would leave, you know, rarely. I mean, maybe a bank trip every month or two. But I felt very safe there because I could kind of control everything. Now, the prospect of covering this event, you know, I was going to have to fly cross-country commercial. I was got to stay in a hotel before I could even get into the bubble just based on how the timing went. I was even nervous about things like, you know, whether it’s going to be an Uber or how do I get to the airport like those kinds of questions which are normally in a normal travel season. Just I mean, I even think about.

S1: Did you ever consider not going.

S2: Well, here’s here’s the thing. I love basketball so much. I really have so little else going on in my life that I the way I looked at it was if LeBron is going there and if Zine Williamston and these star players are going to be there, then I probably you know, I am going gonna be there, too. And so there was a rationalization process. But, you know, ultimately what I did is I consulted experts. So I talked to my my doctor, I talked to a psychiatrist because I knew I was going to be an isolated environment down here. I talked to my cardiologist. I talked to medical experts inside the NBA in terms of some of the decision makers who were, you know, giving the okay for their players to come down. And I also talked to epidemiologists outside the NBA just to kind of get their sense. You know, we’ve been reporting on this plan for months. So I felt like pretty comfortable with how is going to play out. But still, when it’s your own life and your own health at stake, you know, you want to make sure you’re you’re doing your due diligence.

S1: You said you talked to all these experts before you came down. Was there a consensus or was there a moment with one of those physicians that stood out to you where they said something that changed your mind?

S2: I wouldn’t say that. There was a like a light bulb moment. I would say that in general, everybody gave the thumbs up. They wanted to know really to drill down into how the testing was going to work, how regular was gonna be, how quickly the results were going to come back. I think what they were concerned is if you’re not getting a result for four or five days or seven days and you’re walking around having potential contact with other people in the bubble, your risk could be pretty high. Now, the way the NBA is testing program works is we get our results back within 15 hours. And so there is a real, like psychic benefit to knowing that you’re negative and you’re going to probably be negative again the next day. And you can just log on to the Web site and it will confirm with you that you’re negative. And that kind of builds like some, you know, peace of mind over time.

S1: It’s interesting that the doctors brought up the speed of testing as such an important element for them in kind of giving the green light for you to go down, because that’s become part of the controversy of what’s happening in the bubble, because folks like you inside the bubble are getting really quick coronavirus test results regularly, whereas the people in Orlando more generally or in Florida more generally, they’ve had a much harder time getting quick test results. And of course, Florida’s in the middle of this massive surge of coronavirus cases.

S2: Absolutely. There is no question that this is an incredible privilege to be down here and to have this level of care. It’s not accessible to the average person. I feel like I’m living a one percenter lifestyle and in a way that I’ve never really been living before. I mean, just as an example, like what? 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. So this is a level of care not available to the average American.

S1: This gold plated health care has become an issue from the beginning of the outbreak. Basketball players have found themselves at the front line for coronavirus tests.

S2: Thing, the league seems to simply be paying for access, you know, if you rewind back to March and April, one of their go to lines was, you know, we don’t want to do anything that’s taking away from, you know, the ability of the average people to kind of get their their health care. And in this situation, you know, they decided, well, you know, 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 and basically have universal instant result testing for the entire country. They decided they weren’t ready to wait for that debate. They actually wanted to hold their own testing program to a higher standard than the government’s. I think it’s an interesting decision. I do understand why people would be upset.

S1: Yeah, I mean, it’s I listened to, like, the logistics of your stay in Florida so far, and I can’t help but think like I wish my kid’s school had a ramp up. That was this. Built out, that was this thought through because it seems like the NBA just they really wanted this to happen. They had the money and they just did it. And it was funny because as I was thinking about that, I realized that just this past week, Governor DeSantis had come out and said, listen, testing folks in schools regularly, it just won’t be feasible. And it made me wonder, like what is feasible and for whom. Because for the NBA, a lot seems feasible for the people who aren’t in the bubble. It just seems like a lot less is possible.

S2: Yeah, it is a question about our country’s priorities, too. Right. And who is ultimately feeling responsibility? I think that there’s been a real deference to the states and a deference towards private corporations and sort of the handling of this thing. I assumed, and it turned out incorrectly that pro sports would be the lowest priority on the totem pole. Right. I assumed that we would be doing everything we possibly could to open schools first, doing everything we possibly could to kind of get, you know, the the economy or the drivers, you know, back on track in terms of manufacturing and things like that. That would be the the national priority. And instead, I mean it to my I. I don’t know exactly what the national priority was. I’m not sure that’s been clearly communicated to me. And it’s been left to companies to sort of say, well, what are your individual priorities? It’s kind of sink or swim time. And the NBA decided, you know, we don’t want to sink. We’re going to try to do this however we possibly can. And it still might not work. And that’s the other scary thing here, too, is that, you know, they’ve done everything in a very logical, process oriented manner. They’ve displayed the kind of response and thoughtfulness and care for their employees that I think a lot of organizations should, too, should try to do to to try to follow. That’s no guarantee that everyone’s going to stay healthy down here. And it’s no guarantee they’re going to be able to craft a schedule like they want to in October.

S1: You’re talking about how the NBA has been very careful about what they do here. And I think that’s true. And it’s all laid out in this hundred thirteen page document about the health and safety protocols down there in the bubble. I wonder if we can just tick off some of the rules and regulations, because when you dig into this thing, they’re so specific and there are so many different kind of failsafes along the way. I think it will be illuminating to people just how locked down things are.

S2: Absolutely. Before we get into the specifics, remember that the NBA players actually have a union and it’s a fairly strong union. It’s not the strongest pro sports union. I would say that’s probably goes to baseball, but they carry a lot of weight. And they had a very loud voice in the formulation of these protocols because ultimately there are the employees there is whose health is at risk.

S1: Did any of players refuse to come?

S2: Yes, multiple players refused to come. Many needed kind of convincing or they waffled back and forth. You know, it was a situation where there was questions not only about the health safety aspect, also the quality of life aspect of being away from your friends and family for up to three months. And then also they were concerned about distracting from the social justice protests. You know, a number of the players had been leaders in the social justice movement and they were worried, hey, if we’re stuck down in Orlando, we’re not going to be able to do what we need to do in terms of, you know, marching in the streets or being those kinds of voices. So there was 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 these protocols, a big thing is obviously disinfecting and, you know, keeping teams separate from each other as much as possible. So teams are kind of living on different floors. They’re encouraged to only eat together and intermingle if they are outdoors there. They have to wear masks basically at all times when they’re not playing and they’re out on campus during the games. People who aren’t playing baseball, they’re calling tend to second row players and coaches will be wearing masks and seated at some level of a distance.

S1: Yeah, I mean, the specifics here are just so striking. Like one of the things in there is, you know, you’ll have these wristbands and you may have a proximity alarm. So whenever you get within six feet of someone, you’re not supposed to it would go off and sort of warn you, you need to back off a little bit. And then there’s all this language about teams have to brief the players about on court behaviors that could increase risk of coronavirus spread and players will be discouraged from licking their fingers or spitting or clearing their nose or touching their mouth guard. All this stuff that if you’ve watched an NBA game, these guys are constantly touching themselves and each other. And I had to wonder, looking at these regulations, like, what is basketball going to look like?

S2: Yeah, I mean, their idea is you can never get risk to zero, right? So you just need to take the obvious steps to reduce it as much as you possibly can. And 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.

S1: Provide real time medical updates like temperature and oxygen levels.

S2: Yep, and the idea there is again, maybe are you being proactive in identifying symptoms that the player doesn’t notice before he notices it? But, you know, there’s very few things that 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 the lawn sports. So they’ve tried to think of absolutely everything. But one hilarious situation. I guess it’s really not that funny. But, you know, it’s an example of how strictly they’re taking this. One guy tried to order post mates and go down, you know, by the hotel entrance and kind of evade security a little bit to get his post mates. He was caught doing that and he was sent back to a 10 day quarantine period, basically because they didn’t know if that post mate’s driver could have potentially infected him and that he could pass that along to his teammate. So, again, these rules are strict and they’re strict for a reason. And personally, when I heard that story, I would laugh because it was sort of like, well, of course someone would try to do that. Right. And the second thought is, well, I got I might have to interview him. So I’m glad he’s in quarantine. I don’t want somebody who is like, you know, interfacing with the outside world like that kind of flippantly, you know, potentially exposing me to the virus. So there’s going to develop, I think, this idea that we’re all in this together. Right. And I think that especially the teams that have a lot of money at stake. I mean, 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 that the peer pressure within those groups is going to be very high. Everybody, we need to stick to the rules together because otherwise this whole thing could get ruined by the weakest link.

S1: I can tell that you’re an optimist.

S2: Well, that’s it. Could be the Stockholm syndrome setting in. I’ll say that because I was very skeptical before I came down here and I had lots of questions. And I was I thought that they had maybe been a little bit. You know, penny wise and pound foolish by bringing so many teams down here to try to get as much television revenue as possible. To me, it seemed like an unnecessary risk. Once you’re getting down here and you’re actually going through the the regimented testing process, it provides a peace of mind, you know, 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. And I also think that this campus feels a lot like a college campus during summer break or maybe like during intersession where it there’s only like 10 percent of the people here. You know, this is hotels can host tens of thousands of people on a regular basis. And there’s no outside tourists. This is all NBA personnel. So even though there is 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 now like, you know, everyone’s jockeying for position on the walking trail because there’s just not that much room. Yeah, it is, you know, relatively sprawling and spread out.

S1: Yeah. I mean, I’m glad you because you said Stockholm Syndrome because I feel like part of the reason I have a slightly different perspective than you is because I’m not there. You know, I’m looking at like the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, early on, he said the league’s return would be dictated by the data and not the date. And so I look at Florida and the fact that we’re about to see the NBA start up in one of the hottest hot spots in the country. And I think this is the exact opposite of what the commissioner said he wanted to do. But it seems like things are rolling forward anyway, 1000 percent.

S2: I mean, there is no question he started with the date rather than the data. I mean, it’s kind of backwards from what he originally pledged. They decided they want to do this in late July because they needed to try to complete this season before delaying the start of next season by two most. So they felt some real time pressure. They thought they had picked a pretty safe place. The facts on the ground definitely changed in the two months between when they selected Disneyworld and, you know, when we all got here. Ultimately, I think that they return to the logic of the bubble idea and that would say, does it really matter where you are if your bubble is strong, if you’re protecting your players inside? You know, they start off with a baseline of nobody’s sick. You should be able to maintain that as long as you don’t have, you know, a lot of, you know, movement inside and outside of I guess you wanna call it the membrane.

S1: After we recorded this interview, the NBA announced that since July 13th, their bubble has been corona virus free. For the players at least. What remains unknown is how long that can last because the bubbles staff, they go home to their families each day. And it’s unclear how long these athletes can stay quarantined. Do you think the bubble will hold?

S2: I mean, I’m. I know the bubble will hold by my behavior because that’s what I can control. I cannot control 300 plus NBA players and how they want to spend their free time. And I do think if you’re comparing it to other professional sports leagues where, like baseball, for example, doesn’t have a bubble, they’re reliant solely upon testing. Football has not really laid out what their plans are going to be whatsoever. Hockey is doing kind of hub sites, which is going to be similar to kind of a bubble type environment. I think that. More optimistic now than I was before I got here that the bubble has a real chance of holding. And, you know, ultimately, I think the risk here is lower significantly than the risk is, you know, an outside society. It’s not zero, though, and that’s the part that is the most difficult to predict. But also 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. A lot of things can change. You know, during that time period. But personally, I’m very confident they’re going to be able to start games later this month. And, you know, continue forward for the foreseeable future. Hosting games.

S1: Ben Galva, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you.

S1: Ben Gulliver writes about the NBA for The Washington Post. You can also listen to him on a number of podcasts, including The Greatest of All Talk and Sports Illustrated’s Open Floor podcast. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Daniel Eavis this week and every week we have a little help from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedict. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll get you back here tomorrow.