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Gary Washburn | On basketball

How the NBA created a COVID-free bubble and made it the safest place on Earth

The NBA's buy-in to safety protocols was apparent even during the Lakers' title celebration Oct. 11.
The NBA's buy-in to safety protocols was apparent even during the Lakers' title celebration Oct. 11.Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty

There were reasons why the NBA took so long to respond after suspending the season when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11. The league spent several weeks trying to develop a safe resumption to the season and any plan had to be complex, meticulous, and unprecedented.

“There wasn’t a model that we could look at to do this,” said David Weiss, the NBA’s senior vice president of player matters who was given the responsibility of forming the NBA bubble. “We really started with a blank cursor on the page with some really good advisors and a good partnership with the players association and start with the most important public health principles, which is test, trace, and isolate, that was one way to start.”

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First, Weiss and his team had to sell the league on the idea that all the games needed to occur in one central place. Then they had to determine whether the league could safely conduct games with approximately 374 players (17 per each of the 22 teams), coaches, team officials and staff, league officials, game operations staff, media, and Disney employees.

What materialized in this $190 million project was perhaps the safest place on Earth.

A security guard wearing a face mask stands near the entrance to the  arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in late July.
A security guard wearing a face mask stands near the entrance to the arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in late July.Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The 9,000-acre COVID-19 free environment allowed the NBA to finish its season over three months. It was a very difficult task that required daily COVID-19 testing for every working resident in the bubble, and also required screenings for oxygen saturation and body temperature that were gathered through a phone application.

The league also gave constant information on the virus, social distancing, the importance of daily testing, and the precautions necessary.

The NBA had zero positive tests in those three months, surpassing their best expectations because the league assumed there were going to be positive tests, just as other major professional sports leagues — Major League Baseball, NFL, NHL, and Major League Soccer — endured during their resumptions.

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“I’d say I’m most proud that we collectively came together as a community and pulled this off,” commissioner Adam Silver said during the NBA Finals. “By that I mean all of the stakeholders. The players, the team governors, 30 teams — not just 22 teams — the support we received from our fans. Our team communities, both back home where the teams play and the community here, the greater community in Orlando who’s been participating. And, especially, frankly, given all the division in our country right now, the fact that people could set their minds to something, come together, make enormous sacrifices, compromise.”

Adam Silver was proud of the way the NBA approached things.
Adam Silver was proud of the way the NBA approached things.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The bubble required sacrifices from all parties. Players weren’t allowed to have families visit until after the first round of the playoffs. Coaches such as the Celtics' Brad Stevens and Denver’s Mike Malone had to lobby for coaches to have family members visit after it was mandated they could not. NBA officials and media members were not allowed visitors.

What made things difficult in the beginning was the spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida in late June and early July, precisely when the NBA was beginning to move to Disney World.

“There were a lot of things we had to work through,” Weiss said. “The first thing was how we had to put it all together. [The Florida spike] was a challenge because it really put all of our protocols to the test and there was no margin for error for executing them.”

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Weiss said when the NBA decided to resume the season in Disney World, there were 10 new cases in Orange County, Fla., By July 12, when all 22 teams had arrived for training camp, there were 1,371 new cases, according to The New York Times.

Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren arrived at his first game in August — after a week-long quarantine at the team hotel — and spent several weeks with the team.

“In May and early June, when this thing was being worked out, there was a lot of skepticism that this would work,” Zarren said. "There was so much we didn’t know about the virus at the time. It was a bubble, but not really a sealed bubble. There’s a thousand Disney employees coming in and out every day, tons of food and packages and shipping, all sorts of stuff going in and out.

Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren was impressed with the way the NBA handled life in the bubble.
Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren was impressed with the way the NBA handled life in the bubble.Matthew J. Lee

"It’s a real testament to that group at the NBA and also the players, team, league, staff members, who were committed to following the rules.

“You didn’t see people very often walking around with no masks. You didn’t see people not washing their hands. You didn’t see people sneaking around to where they weren’t supposed to be. You have to have a population that’s willing to be enforced upon.”

All parties on the compound were required to wear wrist bands with a Mickey Mouse logo, and that band was connected to an app that included a daily symptom survey. Those parties who did not test for temperature or oxygen saturation were not allowed into any practice or arena venues. And if anyone reported the suffering from symptoms, league medical officials would call the party within a half-hour with further questions. NBA officials and media were also given social-distancing beepers that would trigger if parties were within 6 feet.

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Those bands also doubled as room keys, making it easier for residents to remember to keep them on their person.

“Disney worked with us to think creatively about how to leverage technology to really promote everyone’s health,” Weiss said. “We knew we were asking a lot. Disney hadn’t done anything like this before, but once we designed a model with them, we were able to put it together.”

As the restrictions began to become commonplace for the residents and there were no positives tests, the NBA began to reduce the constraints for NBA officials and media members.

Understandably, the league was uncertain about the potential success of the bubble, but they received full cooperation from the players — save a few who broke quarantine rules — and those who made the sacrifice to spend as many as 100 days away from family and friends.

“Players really bought in and really wanted to finish the season and knew the protocols were important,” Weiss said. “The teams were really engaged and really flexible. We didn’t have to spent a lot of time chasing people around about masking rules or distancing rules. Everyone wanted to feel safe and wanted it to succeed.”

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LeBron James and Dwight Howard celebrate the Lakers' title.
LeBron James and Dwight Howard celebrate the Lakers' title.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

While the NBA bubble will likely never happen again, the players came away pleased with the outcome. It was a resounding victory, a blueprint that could be followed by other sports and big businesses.

“I think one of the biggest things . . . we had zero positive tests,” Lakers forward LeBron James said after the Lakers won the NBA Finals on Oct. 11. “We had zero positives tests for as long as we were here, 90-some days, 95 days maybe for myself. I had a little calendar I was checking off. But on a serious note, no positive tests. That’s a success for everybody that was involved.”


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.