For NBA reporters Marc Spears and Gary Washburn, there is no safer place in the world right now than the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World.
Spears, who covers the NBA for The Undefeated, and Washburn, who covers the Celtics and the NBA for the Boston Globe, spoke to Globe subscribers on Zoom Tuesday night to share what life is like as media members inside the NBA’s bubble.
The two arrived July 12 and were subject to a week of quarantine right away. Spears’s first orders of business were to ask for a king-sized bed (which he got after waiting 45 minutes) and to make himself feel as much at home as possible, which included watching his hometown local newscasts.
“My thing was to make my room something I’d be comfortable with on a daily basis,” Spears said. “We’re here for three months. I’ve got a toaster oven because a lot of the food could be more well-cooked, in my opinion. I got a coffee maker. I grind my own beans, make some coffee.
"I’ve got a wine fridge. Josh Hart, from the Pelicans, recommended I get a wine fridge because he knows I’m a big wine guy. I’ve got a humidifier, a PlayStation 4. Eventually, I convinced some Disney people to give me a bicycle.”
Spears and Washburn are staying at the Coronado Springs Resort, which Spears calls more of a “Ramada type of hotel” while the players are staying in more of a “Ritz Carlton type of hotel.”
Part of the routine for anyone staying in the bubble is to take daily COVID-19 tests. Washburn estimated that Tuesday was his 71st consecutive day getting tested.
“You test every day,” Washburn said. “If you don’t, you cannot get into the facilities. The NBA is not messing around with us here. Players, anybody, if you don’t test, you can’t go to work. It’s something I don’t think we’ll ever do again, and it’s a historic experience.”
Washburn said that upon arrival, everyone received eight masks and was told to download apps to record their temperature and oxygen on a daily basis. The phone apps also send messages to those in the bubble if they haven’t taken their daily test.
While media members such as Spears and Washburn are staying in the bubble, others in “Tier 2” are not tested daily, but tested every three days. Because those colleagues aren’t tested daily, Spears and Washburn can’t be within 6 feet of them. They also receive daily questionnaires about their interactions inside the bubble.
“One [question] is, ‘Have you come into contact with someone you think might have COVID?’ " said Washburn, "and if you accidentally hit ‘yes’ and submit it, the league is calling you 10 minutes later and asking, ‘Who are you? Where are you? Who’d you touch?’
"They are not playing with us, with NBA people, with players. So I know why they’ve been so successful — because they’ve been on our butts about it, which is great.
“It’s the safest place on Earth."
There has yet to be a positive test recorded inside the bubble.
A word about the food
While Spears and Washburn are happy to be safe, they do have one complaint.
“The NBA said they’ll feed us for free, so props to the NBA,” Washburn said. “But the food is average, at best.”
Washburn has been upset by the lack of healthy food choices.
“There’s not much good for you,” Washburn said. “And the fruit’s old. Like, there’s some old bananas, old rotten oranges. Like, are you serious right now? Like, it’s funny, but it’s been an experience.”
Washburn said there’s some food he hasn’t eaten since he was a kid, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He has been displeased with the lack of options.
“They put the food in these to-go containers that are kind of small so you’re like, ‘OK, that’s it? Can I go back for seconds?' ” Washburn said. "It’s not a buffet style. It’s not all that healthy. A lot of starches. If you’re on some sort of dietary restrictions, you’ve got to give it up out here.
"The Celtics have been playing a lot of games at 6:30. So they serve food here at the arena from 6-7:30, like we’re 7 years old and we’ve got to go to bed at 8. I don’t know who stops serving food at 7:30.
“One lunch was grilled cheese with tomatoes in them, garlic knots and tomato bisque. Can we get a vegetable or a meat? Something? I felt like I was in the third grade. Who in the world said, ‘I’m going to feed a bunch of adults grilled cheese sandwiches with tomatoes in them’?
"I don’t know who likes tomatoes in their grilled cheese. And then you have tomato bisque on top of that if you haven’t had enough tomatoes.”
Spears said the food is like “Mama’s cooking” because there’s “some food you’re going to like, some food you’re not going to like. It’s like spin the wheel on dinner.”
Spears has found ways to avoid the trouble Washburn has been complaining about.
“The thing that’s best is takeout,” Spears said. “I’ve been eating a lot from this place called Sofrito, a Latin place. They have an amazing whole fish. The problem with most of the takeout is that it’s got a pretty hefty delivery charge, about $35.”
What’s there to do for fun?
Spears and Washburn said there isn’t much they’re able to do during their spare time. There’s a fountain between the hotels the NBA is using that Spears rides his bike around and Washburn jogs around. They’ve both seen coaches and team personnel exercising around the area too.
However, they can’t fish anymore (something they said they did together) because the hotel with access to the fishing area is open to the public again. While that is off-limits, the media now have access to the bar and gift shop in the bubble with teams being eliminated and leaving.
Being there for historic moments
As for work, each reporter has covered a big story in the bubble. Spears recalled to viewers the leadup to the Bucks' decision to boycott their playoff game in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting.
“It was very emotional,” Spears said. "I remember Bucks guard George Hill saying, ‘I’m tired of these crooked-ass cops. I don’t know why we’re here.’ And that’s when I was like, ‘OK, something might be brewing.’
"I was actually keeping my eye on that Bucks game, I just had a feeling. I had texts with George Hill earlier in the day and he wouldn’t tell me via text, but when I was asking him if he was going to play, he wouldn’t respond. I know George pretty well, so the fact that he wasn’t saying anything kind of tipped me off.
"So I was like rushing to get ready. When I was watching pregame what was going on, I’m like, ‘He’s not playing. They’re not playing.’
"I found out later that George Hill actually had lunch with the Bucks' coaching staff and told them that he wasn’t going to play. He gets to the arena, Sterling Brown from the Bucks joined forces with him. And George basically with a few minutes left [before the game] polled his team: ‘What do you guys want to do?’ And they all decided to sit and stand together.
“They got some heat from some of the other teams about, ‘Why didn’t you guys say what you’re going to do?’ But you know, what happened with Jacob Blake happened in their home state. They happened to have an earlier game.”
Spears believed what Hill and the Bucks did ended up being “amazing” and compared it to when John Carlos and Tommie Smith held their fists in the air during the 1968 Olympics.
He also said that the feeling among the other players toward the Bucks got better when other teams and leagues suspended play in solidarity.
“That’s when they realized, ‘Wow, people are listening. Our voices are being heard. We need to do this in a better fashion,’ ” Spears said. “So that’s when they shifted what they were doing and put their focus on voting.
"I also had the impression they were going to put more into stopping police brutality, but I think right now they realized voting is the real thing that they can make some immediate change while they’re in the bubble.”
A big Celtics story
Washburn found himself outside the Celtics locker room following the Game 2 loss to the Heat. He reported right away on the shouting he was hearing from behind a closed door, sharing the scene with his Twitter followers.
While Washburn’s report was said to be “blown out of proportion” by Jaylen Brown, he stood by it in Tuesday’s chat.
“I’ve been accused of exaggerating the situation,” Washburn said. "But I’ve never met a player until a player left the team and was like, ‘Yeah, we had a knock-down, drag-down argument in the locker room.’ Every player has downplayed these situations.
"Unfortunately, this was one of those situations where everybody was upset and there was a lot of banging against the wall. Marcus Smart comes out and said a couple curse words.
"I’ve never seen something last 20-25 minutes. This was like an argument with many voices, not Marcus Smart only. People are like, ‘Oh Marcus started it,’ Marcus did not finish it.
"Marcus walked to the bathroom because … the bathroom is outside [the locker room]. While he did that, there was still yelling and screaming and stuff thrown around in the locker room.
“I haven’t seen it go on for that long during my years. I’ve seen locker rooms closed for 15 minutes, guys going at it, some screaming. But this was literally 20-25 minutes. It was not a good situation. I had someone in the room say it was ‘crazy.’ So, it seems like they all settled their differences.”
Washburn also shared some details on what he heard happened when the team met later that night.
“There was a couple of conversations afterward where Brad [Stevens] met with the core of the team later that night at the hotel,” Washburn said. "Marcus Smart walked out of that meeting and Kemba [Walker] was able to get him and Jaylen Brown on the phone and kind of settle their differences.
"So, it was something significant. It was not some sort of just two guys going at each other and things happen after a loss. This was significant.
“So I want to tell the readers it was something I did not embellish or was made up. It was so bad that NBA folks were outside the locker room looking around in angst, like they were uncomfortable with how long and how loud it was. They were looking at each other like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ”
Culture shock ahead
The pair’s time in the bubble will come to an end relatively soon. They’ll end their time in the bubble whenever the NBA Finals end. Both see the Lakers defeating the Celtics for their 17th title in franchise history.
Both seemed concerned about what life will be like without daily coronavirus testing when they have to leave the bubble.
“I think when we do leave here, we’re going to be nervous,” Spears said. “We’re going to be freaked out.
"I’ve talked to one of my colleagues; she said when she got out she was freaking out at the airport being near anybody that didn’t have their mask on.
"I know for me, I’ve got to fly across the country to get home. So I can see myself when I get back go into hiding and not going out to see a lot of people.”