The N.B.A. Bubble Is in the Magic’s Backyard. But They’re Not Quite at Home.
The N.B.A. Bubble Is in the Magic’s Backyard. But They’re Not Quite at Home.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Orlando Magic used two buses to keep a 35-person traveling party well spread out on the 23-mile journey that made them the first team to enter the N.B.A.’s restricted campus environment on July 7.
Though there were far more pressing concerns on such a momentous ride, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic had another date circled on his internal calendar: July 10. That was the release date for the 2020 edition of the F1 video game.
“I’m a big Formula One fan,” Vucevic said.
So big, in fact, that Vucevic packed his preferred portable steering wheel for the short trip from the Magic’s arena, Amway Center, to the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World, which is hosting N.B.A. teams as the league reboots its suspended season. Vucevic was determined to be well-equipped for down time on an assignment that will last well into August — or longer if Orlando goes beyond the first round of the playoffs.
Vucevic has also benefited from the one true perk of proximity: Magic players can ask family and friends to drop off items at an external hub that handles mail and delivery shipments for all teams.
“I guess it is a little bit of an advantage for us,” Vucevic said, recounting how he asked his wife, Nikoleta, to purchase the F1 game for him at Best Buy and then deliver it to the so-called bubble, which is about 15 minutes from their home.
There are 22 N.B.A. teams dispersed across three hotels at Disney World, but only the Magic are close enough to home to expedite package deliveries like Vucevic did — or to enable Terrence Ross, Orlando’s sixth man, to have a gaming chair from his house dropped off by his wife, Matijana, at the campus delivery center.
The experience is new for everyone involved, with coronavirus testing mandated daily and the N.B.A. enacting a 113-page guidebook of regulations (and restrictions) to govern life on campus. Yet it is particularly strange for the Magic’s players and staff members, many of whom live within 20 minutes of the Disney site that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, suddenly hosts the N.B.A. and Major League Soccer.
“The fact that, if you left something at home or there’s something you feel you need, that you can get it dropped off easily — it’s nice to know it’s a phone call away,” Magic Coach Steve Clifford said. Clifford, though, called that just “the one place” where the Magic have an advantage. He doesn’t anticipate that the proximity will otherwise “come into play that much” — at least not in a manner from which the Magic can benefit.
Pangs for home among Magic players, by contrast, are inevitable.
A prime example was last Saturday, when the Magic practiced at 1 p.m., leaving considerable time for the rest of that day to ponder their surroundings and restricted movement.
“It’s pretty crazy, man,” Orlando guard D.J. Augustin said. “It’s hard being away from family, period, so when I get back to my room, that’s when it’s hard. But at the same time I’m here to do a job. I’m here and I’m focused and I’m trying to make the best of this opportunity.”
Austin Rivers plays for the Houston Rockets but grew up in Orlando and still maintains an off-season home there. After asserting recently that playing at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex would be “a true home court advantage for me,” Rivers sounded more disoriented by the circumstances this week than anyone in the Magic’s camp.
“It feels like I’m home, but I’m not home,” Rivers said. “This has been very difficult for me.
“It’s where my girl is, my family is, my son is right down the street from there. It’s been hard knowing they’re 20 minutes away. So close, yet so far.”
Individual circumstances present further challenges. Augustin’s father-in-law died recently, adding to the strain of an extended road trip away from his wife, Brandy, and their three young children. The wife of Orlando guard Evan Fournier returned to their native France with the couple’s 13-month-old son to stay with Fournier’s parents while he focuses on the N.B.A. restart. Vucevic’s wife is due with their second child in November, prompting the 2019 All-Star center’s parents to fly in from Montenegro to help Nikoleta Vucevic take care of the couple’s 19-month-old son.
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“That was actually huge for me to know that I’m not leaving her alone,” Vucevic said. “It would have been a much harder decision for me to play if she was alone and pregnant, with another baby to care of every day.”
The Magic, at 30-35, were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference when the season was abruptly paused on March 11. Thanks to the Nets’ considerable injury crisis and losses because of the virus, Orlando has a promising opportunity to move into seventh — and out of Milwaukee’s path for the first round of the playoffs. Despite the four-month layoff, which essentially matched the length of Orlando’s off-season after losing to Toronto in the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs, Clifford said he is encouraged by his team’s relative readiness after seven practices.
Clifford is likewise far more curious about what eliminating travel may do for his team than about how much his players will be affected by being close to home.
“I think it’s a big deal,” Clifford said. “You’re not going to have those landing-at-2:30-in-the-morning nights, eating on the plane at midnight.
“This is such a unique experience for everybody. It’s just hard to know how to try to help because there’s nobody you can turn to as a mentor, like an older coach who’s been through this. And then it’s the same for players. They all have their people they talk to for advice, but there’s just nobody to call on this.”
Not unless the call is to arrange, say, a run to Best Buy.
“We all thought it was going to be a little weird at first, because it’s so close, but I think guys figured out that it’s just the way it is,” Vucevic said.