In 1987, the New York Giants won the Super Bowl and their quarterback Phil Simms uttered five immortal words: “I’m going to Disney World!”
Thus began a tradition, which still continues to this day: The Super Bowl MVP has always repeated the line and is subsequently feted with a parade at a Disney park of their choice.
For the next two-and-a-half months, the top basketball players will all be residing at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and they haven’t had to win anything to get there.
But it’s not necessarily the treat you might think; in fact some – like the Lakers’ LeBron James and the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard – have compared it to a prison sentence, both using slang on social media, saying they were off ‘to do a bid.’”
Welcome to Disney World! Or, between now and the middle of October, “Make yourself comfortable in the NBA ‘bubble!’”
Being referred to as a stretch in the joint is probably not the kind of gratitude the NBA was expecting when they wrestled with the biggest logistical challenge ever faced in the 74-year history of the league: how to resume and finish up a season amidst a global pandemic in a country which has struggled in the fight against Covid-19.
Certainly Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown struck a more positive note.
“I think what the NBA has done … in the environment we are all in is spectacularly brilliant,” Brown told reporters. “I think it’s elite – I have zero complaints about anything that might prohibit us from doing our job.”
And according to UFC boss Dana White, the ‘bubble’ approach is currently the only way forward for US sports.
“This isn’t going to work outside of a bubble,” White told CNN Sport earlier this week after the UFC staged a series of bouts on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi.
“You’ve got to have the bubble, you have to put people in lockdown, people can’t be sneaking out, people can’t go home. You know, in Abu Dhabi, the people [who worked with UFC] … haven’t seen their families in two months.”
So far the NBA’s approach looks to be working. On Wednesday, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and players’ union announced that none of the 344 players tested since July 20 had tested positive for the coronavirus.
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‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’
The NBA’s inner sanctum comprises 22 teams and over 350 players, staying in three hotels which are all just a short distance from their practice facilities and game-day venues. Nobody will be getting out early for good behavior; in fact, the better you play, the longer you stay.
Whilst there have been some complaints about the range of food options, the NBA’s Disney bubble is obviously not a prison.
The Pacers power forward Ty Leaf said, “Given all the circumstances, they’ve done a really good job. I mean, it’s not easy throwing together events at this magnitude.”
The Mavericks’ Josh Reaves described it as “a once in a lifetime opportunity, the hotels are great, the facilities are great,” while the Spurs Jakob Pöltl said he was “positively surprised,” adding the caveat, “We’ll see how long it takes until we get on each other’s nerves.”
Technically, it is not a ‘bubble’ either; the NBA commissioner Adam Silver has resisted describing it as such, because it isn’t ‘hermetically sealed.’
As Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes discovered, leaving the bubble is easy; getting back in is not so much.
Holmes strayed over the perimeter line to pick up a food delivery, landing him in quarantine for a 10-day period. That’s in addition to the initial two days that every player spent in solitary confinement when they first arrived in early July.
The Pelicans’ top draft pick Zion Williamson is one of several players who’ve already left the bubble for family matters, and all who do leave know that they’ll be quarantined again prior to re-entry.
The guidelines are intensely detailed; it took the NBA no less than 113 pages to lay down the law in a handbook which was distributed to every team.
Seemingly everything has been considered; for example – a game of cards with teammates is OK, but only while wearing a facemask and on the understanding that the deck is disposed of at the end.
You can play golf, but you can’t have a caddie. No showering at the practice and game facilities, only back at your team hotel, where there will be no sharing of towels or deodorant and in an Orwellian twist, there is an anonymous tip-line to report any violations.
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Specially designed barbershop
Barely a handful of journalists are allowed on site and they’ve had to sign what the New York Times’ Marc Stein described as ‘unprecedented waivers,’ so much of what the outside world is learning of the bubble experience is coming from the players via remote press conferences or the clips they are posting on social media.
The specially designed barbershop seems to be a big hit with the players – “Everybody in the NBA was excited for the barbershop,” said the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Meanwhile the unofficial beer chugging competition is proving popular with the fans; Pelicans’ guard JJ Redick apparently started it with a Bud Light in an ice bath, and the ever-competitive Heat center Meyers Leonard met Redick’s challenge by polishing off a Coors Light in little more than three gulps.
The 76ers’ Glenn Robinson III has thanked his mom for sending a care package, the Wizards Isaac Bonga says he’s thinking of ordering a keyboard so he can work on his chords, but the one thing that they’ll all have to forgo for now is companionship – no guests are allowed until after the first round of the playoffs at the end of August.
Charismatic analyst Stephen A. Smith thinks that that could be too long for some of these red-blooded males.
“The guys that are married without their wives, the guys that ain’t married without their woman. You really, really think they’re honoring a bubble for three months?” Smith told ESPN.
Smith may feel partially vindicated after the Clippers’ guard Lou Williams was spotted at an Atlanta strip club during an excused absence so that he could attend a funeral.
Williams was welcomed back to Orlando with a 10-day quarantine period and, as a result, he will miss the first two games.
“For the first time in league history, a player is guaranteed to miss an official NBA game for quarantine,” is the way long-time NBA writer Shaun Powell put it.
Williams admitted to NBA security that he went to Magic City, a local strip club, while on excused leave. The league was initially suspicious when Jack Harlow, a rapper, posted a picture of him and Williams — wearing an NBA-issued facemask — at the club on social media Thursday before deleting it.
Williams said on social media it was the food at Magic City rather than the adult entertainment that had drawn him to the club.
“Ask any of my teammates what’s my favorite restaurant in Atlanta is. Ain’t nobody partying. Chill out lol. #Maskon #inandout,” Williams tweeted.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers told the NBA website: “You know, obviously those (pictures) got out, and that’s something that we obviously didn’t enjoy seeing or like.”
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‘We need sports’
Speaking to CNN, the mental performance consultant Dr. Tiff Jones accepts that separation from families will inevitably be hard, especially since players have transitioned from a long period of lockdown during which they saw more of their partners and kids than ever before, to a period of intense isolation.
“I think it is going to be hard unless they almost compare it to being in the military,” she said, “You’re serving your country. We need sports, because of what it will do psychologically for the fans.”
Dr. Jones points out that there is no research to prove that a period of abstinence has either a positive or detrimental effect on athletic performance, but she says that the players will likely be better rested.
What will be fascinating, she says, is a study of how they perform without the other physical connection that they are so accustomed to – the fans.
“How many of them are truly impacted without the energy? No matter what’s going on in your environment, you’ve got to find a way to fight.”
She says that James might struggle without fans, “because he’s said it about 8,000 times. Other guys, like Kawhi Leonard, haven’t said a word about the fans, because he’ll probably play the same way whether people are watching him or not.”
Every Disney guest is given a ‘magic’ wristband and it’s no different in the NBA bubble. Although on this occasion, the bands are less about accessing your fast pass to the Star Wars rides and more for managing the movement of the players and the safety of the community.
In his blog about the bubble, the Boston Celtics’ Gordon Hayward wrote:”The magic band is your room key. But you also have to get it scanned before you leave and go to practice and when you come back.”
Hayward says it’s the same procedure if you’re pursuing a leisure activity – like golf – and every day there is a personal health questionnaire that must be completed.
Inevitably life in the bubble is a compromise. The 22 teams currently in residence have to share the seven practice facilities between them, which are deep cleaned after every use.
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That means there can be long days spent waiting to practice in the evening, and around every corner lurks a potentially awkward encounter with your rivals.
Hayward writes: “You run into people from the different teams every day, it’s almost like passing period in high school. Once we start playing games and competing against each other, that might get a little weird.”
As James pointed out after a recent Lakers practice session, “Nothing is normal in 2020. You make the adjustments and you figure it out along the way.”
Life is indeed what you make it – just ask the Trail Blazers’ center Hassan Whiteside, who joyfully shot a video clip showing him and some of his teammates.
Grinning from ear-to-ear, he said: “Your chance of being seven feet [tall] is one in two million.” He then panned the camera to show some very large basketball players wedged awkwardly into small and brightly colored paddling pools.
“To see three seven-footers in baby cold tubs! Disney is a magical place! Magic really do happen! This is better than beauty and the beast!”
It remains to be seen whether the NBA’s finest athletes do come to regard this experience as akin to a prison sentence, but there’s at least one thing that will make it feel very different: If they can keep their noses clean, they won’t just be leaving with their personal possessions; they might be walking out through the gates with a trophy as well.