Part hoops, part Hunger Games: NBA’s ambitious restart is like no other

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5-min read

The plan was as audacious as it was expensive ($170 million, at least). It was drawn up in the darkest days of the pandemic, when little was known and nothing was certain, other than the NBA’s unflinching desire to do everything possible to finish the season it had started.

Now, here it is, set for a Thursday opening night, live from Walt Disney World, live from the NBA bubble, live from this social, sport and scientific experiment. It’s part hoops, part Hunger Games, part megastars and millionaires passing the isolation with pingpong and fishing poles.

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Now here comes not just an NBA playoffs like none other, but perhaps the best chance for a major North American team sport to stage a legitimate championship this year.

“It’s 2020,” LeBron James said. “Nothing is normal in 2020. … Life throws you curveballs sometimes, and it’s not only how you approach it, but how you appreciate it.”

The bubble seems to work — there have been zero positive results since about 350 players began arriving on July 7. To keep it that way, there is lots of technology, tracing and even an old-school snitch line, everything designed to protect against community spread and strip-club chicken wings.

That confinement may be the saving grace that Major League Baseball, the National Football League and college athletics can’t and won’t have as they try to operate in open society.

A basketball court is shown at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Kissimmee, Fla., Tuesday, July 21, 2020. The NBA's marketing motto for the restart of the season at Walt Disney World is “Whole New Game,” and in many respects, that’s very true. (AP Photo/Tim Reynolds)
A basketball court at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World. (AP Photo/Tim Reynolds)

The National Hockey League, which starts Saturday, also has a bubble, two actually, both in Canada, where the virus is largely under control. A nation with the geographic sprawl of the United States and the population of California has roughly the same amount of active cases as Delaware. So that, too, looks promising.

The NBA’s bubble is first, however, as maybe it should be. It was the first to shut down on March 11 after Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and ground the league, then sports everywhere, then the nation as a whole, to a halt.

Gobert will be playing in the opener Thursday, maybe fittingly, against New Orleans and, almost certainly, the league’s brightest young star, a slimmed down Zion Williamson.

After that, the battle of Los Angeles: Lakers vs. Clippers, LeBron vs. Kawhi. It’s a preview of a possible Western Conference finals that would have captivated Southern California, both teams sharing the same Staples Center, only to have it potentially staged 2,500 miles east in a canary-yellow youth sports complex with no celebrities courtside.

This will not be just about the virus the league is trying to keep from getting into the bubble, however, but also about the message of social activism it is trying to send out of it. A lot has happened in the world since March.

“Black Lives Matter” will be painted on the court. A slew of approved messages will be on the back of uniforms. It’s expected players (and coaches) will take a pregame knee, which the league has avoided in the past.

No one will be just shutting up and dribbling.

The on-court action that follows should be furious and fun, although, for the players and coaches, likely frustrating at times. The physical toll of a championship run — in which the Lakers are +250 favorites — will be the same. The mental and emotional pressure of being away from family, cooped up in a strict and sanitized hotel room for months on end, will not.

“It gives you that feeling of an AAU summer camp,” Utah’s Donovan Mitchell said. “You know, except for the quarantine part.”

No, for that, for at least two teams, the camp won’t end until around Oct. 13.

Other than some early jokes about the food, there have been virtually no complaints, though. The league understands the bad optics in that.

This may not be glamorous, but it sure isn’t hardship. The players are at three luxury Disney hotels. At these salaries, no one wants to hear complaints anyway. Like LeBron said, don’t just adapt, appreciate. It’s why social media has been full of videos of hooked bass and crushed beer cans. Life gives you a pandemic, you thank the heavens you can play at all.

“I’m extremely blessed,” said Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. “ ... My apartment in Greece when I was younger with my four brothers was way smaller than the suite I have here in the hotel.”

Competitively, there is no playbook for making this work. No roadmap for success. There is the stress of the surroundings, but gone is the exhaustion of travel, the heckling road crowds and the demands of family. Maybe it evens out.

“It’s 2020,” LeBron said after a recent practice. “It’s different from the vision 20/20. It’s not that clear. … What is the same is that floor we just came off of and what we are here to do. And that’s to lock in and stay focused.”

The team that does that, in every facet of the game and in life, may win it. Upsets may be prevalent.

Mostly importantly, this is real basketball, real competition, a real championship. If the bubble holds, this will be a 22-team, 76-day (max) basketball derby, the wildest, craziest tournament the sport has ever conceived.

No one wanted it this way. What they have is intriguing though.

So buckle up. The bubble is ready.

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