The journey began in flattering style, with an NBA-sponsored town car awaiting my arrival at Orlando International Airport. From there, I rode in comfort 20 minutes to the Coronado Springs Resort, for the beginning of life in the NBA bubble.
It’s going to be a three-month sojourn here in Florida, but it begins with a seven-day quarantine that will end Sunday before I’m allowed to cover NBA activities.
As I arrived at the resort, I waited in line at a convention center area for my bag that included a wristband with a Mickey Mouse logo that allows me to open my room, purchase food at restaurants once I am released from quarantine, and is essentially a bubble ID.
On my right wrist is a green tag that designates I am in quarantine. So the first night I reported to my room, I was informed of the quarantine conditions:
1. You are not to leave your room;
2. Meals will be provided at 8 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m., and you will be tested for COVID-19 daily;
3. You will take your own temperature and oxygen saturation levels by gadgets they provide.
The NBA has done an admirable job making sure everyone is safe and tested, and if there is any glitch or positive test, knowing those results immediately. For the first two nights, I was tested around 9 p.m. The test was a swab of both nostrils and a saliva sample.
During this process you are asked to download three NBA-related medical apps and also start an account with the testing company. On its website is where you find your results 12 to 15 hours later.
As expected, I was rather nervous searching for my first result. It said, “not detected” or negative, meaning I did not have COVID-19. Despite all the safety measures most of us have taken during this pandemic, including masks and an overdose on hand sanitizer, COVID-19 seems to have no discrimination, so I was relieved to test negative.
There are too many people suffering in our world because of this virus and other related social circumstances, so complaining about the food or getting whole milk when I only drink almond (just an example) appears insensitive.
The food and timing of it require adjustments. It is reminiscent of summer camp. The hotel drops two bags of food in front of your door for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and you’re relegated to looking through the cuisine to see what is edible and frankly, what is not.
The NBA provides practice times for teams and availability to Zoom calls, so there is plenty of work to be done. And a large swimming pool can be seen from my window, so there will eventually be relaxation.
Now, what will it be like to be here for three months? I’m not really sure. The NBA allows you to ship boxes to your hotel, so I gathered a bunch of living supplies and sent two boxes before I departed Boston. There are 10 reporters in the bubble, outside of journalists from ESPN and TNT, so we are essentially sharing the experience.
The NBA has tried to make this area the safest possible considering Florida is rampant with COVID-19 cases. So it was no surprise when the league forced Richaun Holmes of the Sacramento Kings back into quarantine after he ran across the street and out of the bubble to pick up a food delivery.
The league is not kidding around here. It is going to test every day for the duration, and even standouts such as Zion Williamson, who left the compound because of a family matter, will be subjected to quarantine once they return.
Commissioner Adam Silver and NBA officials deliberated for weeks about when and how to return, and this appears to be the most prudent and safest plan. So, it’s humbling to be included in this once-in-a-lifetime experience, even if the short-term price is a seven-day quarantine.
The bright side is that the NBA is coming back. The number of positive tests has not been of major concern. There is a hotline where players can report on each other for not following social distancing guidelines, and it’s been used already several times. And being sequestered together for potentially three months can do nothing but help unite teams, if not for a long playoff run this season, then for next season.
As for reporters, we wait until this cordon is over before we are allowed into the free bubble world. But there’s no reason to complain. These measures are necessary to ensure everyone is healthy before play begins.
So dealing with the cafeteria-like food and binge-watching “The First 48” is cool for now, because it will allow me to eventually do my job and cover a sport we all love.
A NEW PACE
Oladipo may play after all
Former All-Star guard Victor Oladipo of the Pacers, who has been dealing with a debilitating knee injury for the past 18 months, announced two weeks ago he would not rejoin his team in Orlando. But that has changed. Oladipo is working out with the club and is reconsidering his stance.
If he returns, the Pacers could be a sleeper in the Eastern Conference. They have been limited by injuries all season and a healthier Oladipo, along with coach Nate McMillan’s defensive-minded philosophy, would turn the Pacers into contenders.
“He’s been going through practice and looking good,” McMillan said this past week. “He’s worked extremely hard. You’re bringing in another major option. We’ve only had opportunity to look at that first group together maybe five or six games this season. We haven’t seen that enough. He brings another strong weapon to that lineup.”
Oladipo would not commit to playing. He is being careful with his return because he knew he wasn’t himself when he returned for six games after the All-Star break after being out for a year. Yet in the six games he played, Oladipo averaged 16.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 3.2 assists, including a season-high 27 points in 29 minutes in a March 10 loss to the Celtics.
“My body’s feeling good,” he said. “It was hard for me to assess where I was at from the long layover. Playing with the guys, there’s a possibility I could play. I think people fail to realize that this injury that I have is very unique. No one of my stature, of my abilities, has ever had this injury before.
“I’m learning and growing as the days and weeks go on. I know how my body needs to feel because if I don’t everybody’s going to write how I didn’t play at a great level and how I didn’t look good. Being able to practice at the high level, if my body keeps trending, there’s a possibility I could play. It’s been a tough couple of years, obviously, I’m just trying to be smart because I want to play for the next 10 years.”
Oladipo was certain he would not be able to return. He said he wasn’t healed enough from his injury, and the pandemic closed down team rehabilitation facilities, preventing him from getting essential treatment.
“I didn’t have nowhere to go, everything was closed,” he said. “Tried to turn my garage into a weight room. We did what we could. Tried to stay in shape. I had no control over COVID. I know it’s a different situation for me. I’ve been getting my feet under me. It just feels good to play basketball.
“I made a decision that was best for my career. Was that wrong for me to do? I don’t think so.”
He still hasn’t made a decision, but his appearance appears to be galvanizing his teammates.
“I was always going to come down here and test it out,” he said. “A week ago, I didn’t think I could play. I’m trending in a positive direction. I know what type of athlete and basketball player I need to be. My health is very important for me to get to that level. I’m monitoring it with extreme caution.
“I just want to play basketball, plain and simple. When the time comes to make a decision, I’ll make one. It’s going to be a collective decision, something we will decide together. As bad as I want to go out there and play 40 minutes, they might not think it’s smart to do that. There’s no definite answer but I’m trending upward.”
Clippers bursting with optimism
You know Doc Rivers couldn’t begin his bubble journey without a few goodhearted jokes, especially about NBA players calling the “snitch line” to report on others breaking social distancing guidelines, not wearing masks, and leaving the bubble without permission.
“I turned in LeBron [James] yesterday. I’m turning in [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] today,” Rivers joked. “I’m trying to turn all these guys in. I think it’s phenomenal. We’re going to be the only team left when I’m done with this hotline thing. No, you know, it’s funny, I know about it, but I don’t think it’s a problem at all. I think it’s good. This is not some normal thing. COVID obviously, it’s not only that you can get sick but you can get other people sick, and so this is very important for all of us. We want to do our jobs. So I think having a hotline, I guess that’s what they’re calling it, I guess that’s important.”
While Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he wants this to be a “joyful” experience for his players, many coaches are uncertain how their players will respond to these unusual circumstances. Rivers is taking a positive approach.
“It’s different, but it’s different for everyone,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve all gone through this unless you’ve done a lot of camps when you were a coach as a kid. This is what it feels like in some ways, one of the most elite basketball camps in the history of mankind, when you think about it. That’s basically where we’re at. But it’s unique, for sure. You know, there is a lot on your plate, for sure, but it’s an awesome responsibility. I don’t know, I think it’s really cool. You have a chance to come out of this and play games and then go to the playoffs. I think it’s awesome, and I think what the NBA has done — like I keep hearing a lot of negative stuff out of here. Listen, it’s not [a] normal world, but what we’re doing and what they’ve done overall, man, I don’t know — I feel like we’re in the safest place in the world. Just the work that they’ve put into this is amazing.”
Rivers said galvanizing his team in the bubble hasn’t been difficult. The team’s focus has been on basketball, not surprising when Kawhi Leonard is one of the leaders.
“It’s mostly team stuff,” Rivers said. “Nothing changes. We’ll have an off day here and there and then we’ll go golfing, at least I do. Some guys go fishing. But it’s neat, like this morning, even though we practiced I got up and rode my bike and saw the coaches running and jogging. So you still do that. But I would say for the most part, you’re still doing your job, basketball. The difference is after you’re here on the floor, you’re in the team room. If you’re not working out or something you’re back in your room. So there’s no yard to go to, that’s for sure.”
The Clippers were 44-20 when the season was halted and there is still much to play for during the final eight regular-season games. The Clippers are 1½ games ahead of the Nuggets for the No. 2 seed, which is critical because it would mean avoiding the Lakers in the second round, potentially setting up an epic conference finals matchup.
Rivers has had to develop additional game plans and rotations to include some of the recently acquired players, such as Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, and also using swingman JaMychal Green in a more versatile role. The Clippers seek to play position-less basketball.
“We just have so many lineups that we really never — we used them, we just didn’t have enough time to work on them,” Rivers said. “One of the things we were just talking about before is because we’re together for this long, the uniqueness of having two and three and four weeks to work on things, obviously you’ve got to have health and all your players to do that, but playing four smalls with one big, playing all five smalls. We did it during the season, we just didn’t do it a lot and we didn’t work on it at all.”
The Lakers will be without guard Rajon Rondo after surgery to repair a broken thumb sustained during practice this past week. Rondo has been troubled by hand injuries over recent years and this injury could be costly as he likely won’t return until mid-September. It robs the Lakers of their lone natural point guard, and now two key guards (Avery Bradley opted out) are gone. LeBron James is the NBA leader in assists and essentially the team’s best distributor — as well as scorer — but he’ll need support. It could be up to Quinn Cook to play extended time and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to also play point guard. Bradley decided not to join the team in the bubble because of health issues with his oldest son … Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said the draft could be the most scrutinized in league history because scouting departments have had so much extra time to evaluate prospects. The draft lottery is Aug. 25 and it’s uncertain whether there will be socially distanced workouts for prospects. The draft is Oct. 16, four days after a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The start of next season has not been determined … No. 4-rated prospect Jonathan Kuminga became the fifth high school prospect to commit to the NBA’s G-League program and become draft eligible in 2021. Jalen Green, Isaiah Todd, Daishen Nix, and Kai Sotto also have all committed. There could be increased interest in the league because of the uncertain state of college basketball. There is uncertainty about a season, leaving some of the nation’s top prospects to ponder whether they will even play next season. The G-League developmental team, coached by former NBA guard Brian Shaw, will allow players who had little interest in attending college or were going to be one-and-dones to begin their professional career at a competitive salary ($500,000). It’s in direct competition with the NCAA, which had been working with the NBA to formulate a plan to retain talent and eliminate the one-and-done system, but the pandemic and the NCAA’s apathetic reaction prompted the NBA to develop a plan to sign the nation’s top talent to contracts before they were eligible for the draft.