Getting Used to the New N.B.A. Inside the Bubble

Getting Used to the New N.B.A. Inside the Bubble

Getting Used to the New N.B.A. Inside the Bubble

Getting Used to the New N.B.A. Inside the Bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The two happiest N.B.A. players these days just may be Brook and Robin Lopez. Milwaukee’s 7-foot twin brothers double as unabashed Disney lovers.

“There is nothing false about that statement,” Brook Lopez told me when we crossed paths Monday at Walt Disney World, which is hosting the rest of the N.B.A. season.

You could see the glee on Lopez’s face even though more than half of it, in accordance with N.B.A. regulations, was covered by a mask. His smile was that big. The Bucks are a title contender and will be here through mid-October if they can reach the N.B.A. finals.

It turns out my Monday, if not quite Lopez-level, was pretty good, too. It was my first full day out of quarantine after seven days of being restricted to a 314-square-foot room. I signed up to go to six practices in this new N.B.A. world that suddenly requires no air travel and, despite one cancellation and a couple of timing conflicts, managed to make three of them. I got to be in a gym again for the first time since March 6 and watched happily as Luka Doncic, at a basket on the far end of the facility, went through his array of jab-step moves against the defense of the Dallas assistant coach Jamahl Mosley — just like they do before every game.

As a Dallas resident who typically sees the Mavericks often, it was my first dose of basketball normalcy in a long, long time — apart from the inelegant elbow bump greetings that I tried to exchange with the likes of Doncic, Boban Marjanovic and Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle.

“I’m having a blast,” Carlisle said.

Carlisle’s team plays the Los Angeles Lakers in a scrimmage Thursday night and he was too excited by the looming prospect of an actual game to manage to fret over the aesthetics of awkward greetings in the name of public health guidelines. Carlisle said he sensed that the Mavericks were “energized” by the fast-approaching resumption of the 2019-20 season and speculated that many other teams felt the same.

I certainly got a jolt Sunday afternoon from my first exposure to sunlight in a week and the chance to get my daily steps in on actual concrete, but the real lift came Monday when I got to go see a few teams.

As stated in last week’s newsletter, I don’t like to discuss work conditions because this really is a dream job — and complaining out loud is dumb. This trip, though, is different. For the first time in league history, 22 teams are living, practicing and playing in the same place. And I’m one of only 10 independent reporters approved to cover the N.B.A. restart at the league’s centralized location. So I share what I share here and tweet what I tweet from the experience because I don’t think there has ever been a time, in my 27 seasons covering #thisleague, that the audience wanted to know more about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

There’s a perception, at the so-called N.B.A. bubble, that we’re bunking with LeBron James this summer. In reality, because all face-to-face contact with players, coaches and team staff members is forbidden outside of official interviews and news conferences arranged by the league, we are not supposed to get close to James or anyone else. The way things are set up for the news media at Disney World, chance encounters like the one I had with Lopez can realistically only happen during practice times at the convention center at the Coronado Springs Resort. Three of the league’s seven practice courts are at the convention center, adjacent to a hallway that representatives from the eight teams staying at the Gran Destino are prone to populate.

I found that out Monday afternoon while waiting to get inside the San Antonio Spurs’ practice. Lopez, along with Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Joakim Noah, soon passed by in the short time I was there.

Most of these encounters will generate little more than a hello, because the aforementioned 10 reporters, and a like number from the league’s official media partners at ESPN and Turner, were required to sign unprecedented waivers pledging that we would not approach any team personnel when we saw them outside of official access periods for the news media.

The rules were conceived by the league for safety reasons. To minimize the risk of a coronavirus outbreak, it wants no one getting close to the principals who does not need to be close. But let’s be clear: There are likely other motivations for league and team officials to have limited our accessible slice of the Coronado Springs property to less than one square mile, as measured on a walk by my colleague Ben Golliver of The Washington Post.

They don’t want us to see and document violations — players not wearing masks or failing to maintain a proper distance. They don’t want us to see the inter-team mingling that, in the N.B.A.’s social media era, will inevitably (and instantly) be construed as tampering, like last week when Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka and Andre Iguodala of the Miami Heat, who have a longstanding relationship as former player agent (Pelinka) and client (Iguodala), were spotted walking together.

They don’t want us encroaching on team privacy, and especially player privacy, when those players have already been asked to give up so many of their usual freedoms to play on a campus they are not allowed to leave without permission for as long as their teams are here.

Interactions like the one I had with Lopez are likely to be even rarer than we expected going in because the league on Sunday closed off a common area shared by residents of the media wing and the Gran Destino tower that houses the eight teams with the best records when play was suspended March 11. Two reporters from ESPN and Turner who were invited to campus early kept running into players on their trips to grab food or a coffee, so those zones have been blocked off.

We’ll adjust. We’ll find our opportunities. In the 15-minute blocks of practice that reporters are actually allowed to watch, I saw little more Monday than individual shooting drills and, in the Spurs’ case, players in very spread out folding chairs putting on their sneakers before practice. Yet we will learn to maximize what the new normal affords us, just like the participants.

“Everyone keeps asking, ‘How is the bubble?’ or, ‘How is it going?’ ” James said Monday after the Lakers’ practice session. “And I just say, ‘It’s 2020.’ Nothing is normal in 2020. Nothing seems as is, and who knows if it will ever go back to the way it was. But you make the adjustments and you figure it out along the way. That’s what life is all about.”

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A few more highlights and reflections from my first full week on campus:

  • Quarantine, in the end, was not as unbearably hard as being stuck in a hotel room for seven straight days would suggest. I’m a loner by nature, especially when I work, so I adapted well. (I felt more normal about this Monday after Portland’s CJ McCollum told me he, too, thinks he has “adjusted quicker than most” because he likes “to enjoy my alone time.”) As a bonus, we also were informed Saturday that we would not have to repack, switch to a new room and unpack all over again as initially feared. That was a big win.

  • My proudest achievement in quarantine was a four-day run to close the seven-day lockdown in which I recorded 10,224 steps, 8,180 steps, 10,023 steps and, as I tweeted Saturday night, 15,204 steps. It is only 13 steps, with my stride, from the window in my ground-floor room to the bathroom sink. That means I went back and forth about 1,169 times to record those 15,204 steps.

  • One of the biggest adjustments to life in the coronavirus era is recognizing people you know when they are wearing masks. It is much tougher than it sounds. I was wearing a hat and sunglasses on Sunday when I finally exited my room and several reporter pals said they had no clue it was me. There are certain tall basketball players, like the Lopez brothers, whose height makes it easy when you spot them, but properly identifying masked passers-by is an underrated skill at the N.B.A. bubble.

  • I had to laugh at myself Sunday when one of the first people I managed to recognize in spite of the mask obstacle was Leon Wood. Shocker (to no one): I knew it was him instantly. The veteran referee, who also happens to be the greatest player in the history of my alma mater, Cal State Fullerton, was briefly captured in “The Last Dance” because he started in the backcourt for the United States at the 1984 Olympics alongside a certain Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Nothing can disrupt my Fullerton radar.

  • I get this question a lot: Are you worried about catching the coronavirus? My bizarro internal wiring is such that I’m really not. I’m so neurotically consumed by all the writing and reporting that has to get done that I’ve largely been able to block out the coronavirus what-ifs. I must confess that I have also enjoyed taking my own temperature and pulse oximeter readings every day, because they also let me know I’m on a decent track. My paranoia is such that I am probably more worried about somehow accidentally crossing a border that takes me off campus like Sacramento’s Richaun Holmes and Houston’s Bruno Caboclo did. I do not want to end up in a 10-day quarantine that mandates coronavirus testing with the long, scary stick up the nose. Our daily tests, remember, consist of a throat swab and one shallow swab of each nostril.

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

Q: Which do you think is bigger? Is it the difference between the Premier League and Major League Soccer, or the difference between the N.B.A. and the EuroLeague? — Dave Cutler (Lincoln, Vt.)

Thank you, Dave, for one of the most thought-provoking questions I’ve ever received. Love this.

What makes it so fun, beyond that you’ve found a way to connect two of my three favorite sports, is that it’s quite difficult to answer without knowing more variables.

Are we comparing their overall quality or just the best teams? Are we talking about a one-off game — or are we dropping an M.L.S. team into the Premier League, or a EuroLeague team into the N.B.A., for a whole season?

Soccer is a sport far more conducive to upsets. So if you pit, say, Los Angeles F.C. against Norwich City for one match or even a seven-game series, I would give the M.L.S. team more of a chance to shock the world than the best EuroLeague team in similar circumstances against the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Knicks.

I find it much easier to imagine an M.L.S. team manufacturing a fluky goal or taking advantage of a dubious refereeing decision than to imagine EuroLeague teams coping with N.B.A. athleticism for a 48-minute game (or a 40-minute game under EuroLeague rules).

Yet I must confess that there is a serious flaw in that argument. The best players in the EuroLeague have proved closer to N.B.A. level than the best players in M.L.S. have to the Premier League. How often does an M.L.S. import thrive in the Premier League?

Luka Doncic is clearly in a stratosphere by himself, so I’m not even talking about how quickly he jumped from EuroLeague most valuable player to N.B.A. All-Star. Past, future and borderline N.B.A. players are routinely found in the EuroLeague. Quincy Acy, Tarik Black, Omri Casspi, Tyler Dorsey, Amare Stoudemire and Deni Avdija have all played for Maccabi Tel Aviv this season. We’ve seen them all in the N.B.A. except Avdija, who is widely projected to be a top-10 pick in October’s N.B.A. draft.

The EuroLeague is the second-best basketball league in the world because it is basketball’s answer to the Champions League, pulling in top teams from several countries. M.L.S. is not a top-five league in world soccer, so the EuroLeague’s advantage there is clear.

Q: Does this season count as an inaugural season at their new home building for every team? — @Sergio24Calado from Twitter

Stein: Sergio appears to be mocking an item from last week’s newsletter. Perhaps you’ll recall us noting that the Detroit Pistons (1988-89 at The Palace of Auburn Hills), the Los Angeles Lakers (1999-00 at Staples Center) and the San Antonio Spurs (2002-03 at the AT&T Center) are the only three teams in league history to win a championship to cap their first season in a new building.

The eventual champion of the N.B.A. restart at Disney World will not be added to that list. I’m pretty sure Sergio already knew that. But we can pass along that there is some legitimate anticipation building about the setup at the N.B.A.’s three game venues here.

“They’ve done an amazing job with the arena,” New Orleans Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry told reporters Saturday. “I think everybody assumed we were just going to play in an empty arena and you’re going to hear the balls bouncing and the officials talking, but I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised when you see the atmosphere we’re going to be playing in.”

Media members received a tour of the arena Tuesday morning, but our first chance to truly verify Gentry’s scouting report in a game setting comes Wednesday, when scrimmages start in the three arenas at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

Q: Did you have a little bit of garden area where you could take some steps outside? Or were you really stuck in the room for a week? — Michael Fritz (Munich)

Stein: I was really stuck in the room for a week.

There actually is a nice little garden encircled by a walking path right outside my window. But the rules were firm. As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, even a short sprint to the nearby ice machine was verboten.

There was no visible security presence outside my window, so maybe I could have chanced it. But there was no way to gauge how vigilant the cameras were in monitoring this area of the hotel, so it was difficult to know how closely reporters were being watched.

I deemed it wisest to follow the rules until my quarantine was scheduled to end Sunday in the 2 p.m. hour. Reporters were instructed to wait for Mark Broussard from the N.B.A. to come to the door and leave their credentials hanging on the handle to replace the green wristband we’ve been wearing since check-in that indicated we were still in quarantine. My knock came at 2:03 p.m. Sunday.

I did open my door multiple times a day during quarantine, but not really for fresh air because, remember, this is Central Florida in July. The door had to be opened to claim food drop-offs, take daily coronavirus tests and to leave trash outside.

Being the neat freak I am, apart from a few drops of A1 sauce that wound up on the side of a bedsheet in an unfortunate dinner mishap, my room looked decent even after 165 consecutive hours of inhabitance. Of course, as this tweet conveyed, I’m pretty sure you could detect the depths of my delight Monday when housekeeping was finally allowed back inside to straighten up for the first time in eight days.

The 22 teams invited to Walt Disney World for the N.B.A. restart left 18 combined roster spots unused. Teams were allowed to name 13 to 17 players in their 37-person traveling parties, but only 11 teams (Boston, Denver, Indiana, the Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis, Miami, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Sacramento, Toronto and Utah) chose to include the maximum.

The Portland Trail Blazers brought a league-low 13 players to Florida. The Nets only registered a 14-man roster after losing numerous players either to coronavirus-related absences (Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince), personal reasons (Wilson Chandler) or injury (Nicolas Claxton, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving). The Nets also lost Michael Beasley, one of the substitute players they signed earlier this month, because of a positive coronavirus test.

At least five of Sacramento’s 17 players are unavailable entering the team’s first scrimmage Wednesday night against Miami. That includes De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento’s star point guard, who last week in practice sprained his left ankle — the same injury that sidelined Fox for 17 games in November and December. Harrison Barnes and Alex Len are still recovering from the coronavirus, Richaun Holmes has only just rejoined the team after being forced to self-quarantine for 10 additional days after crossing a campus border without authorization to pick up food and Marvin Bagley sustained a foot injury in Sunday night’s practice. Len told reporters Monday that he tested positive for the coronavirus on 24 consecutive days before finally registering two consecutive negative tests.

The N.B.A. has announced that all year-end award voting will be based on statistics accrued through March 11, when the season was abruptly suspended in response to the coronavirus outbreak. And Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo remains a heavy favorite to become the 12th repeat most valuable player in league history. The first 11 were: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Stephen Curry.

James may not be able to unseat Antetokounmpo as the league’s most valuable player, but he is poised to become the first player in N.B.A. history listed as a forward to win the league’s annual assist crown. James is averaging 10.6 assists per game to rank No. 1 in that category for the first time in his career and would stay ahead of Atlanta’s Trae Young — whose team did not qualify for the N.B.A. restart — even if James plays all eight of the Lakers’ scheduled “seeding” games in Florida and fails to record an assist in any of them.

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