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Life in the NBA bubble: Learning to survive a ‘three-month road trip’

A basketball court is shown at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Kissimmee, Fla., on July 21, 2020.
A basketball court at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
(Tim Reynolds / Associated Press)

Andre Iguodala peered between a partition that had turned a large room into two small rooms — one for Zoom interviews and one for medical attention — at the HP Pavilion at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.

Iguodala, on the medical side, looked over where Lakers coach Frank Vogel was conducting his post-scrimmage news conference. Iguodala retreated into the training room before long.

Six teams were to play at the HP Pavilion that day, with games at noon, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. That meant overlap was bound to happen as the first game, between the Lakers and Orlando Magic, ended and the second game, between Iguodala’s Miami Heat and the Utah Jazz, began. It meant there were times when players from all four teams would pass each other on the way to or from the court, which had to be sanitized between scrimmages.

This is one of three game venues the NBA will use to finish its season, and the campus one of three locations at Disney World where practices are being held.

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The NBA has descended on Disney World, with 22 teams that each brought 36 people, occupying three of its 22 hotels with security blocking entrances and exits. Some measures are in the interest of completing the season without a COVID-19 outbreak. Some are for player safety or comfort. It all creates a bustling community of people who aren’t accustomed to working in such an enclosed environment.

Tucked away in a resort community that’s secluded from the public, there are no autograph seekers or paparazzi, only players, coaches, team staff and NBA personnel.

Stretching across a glittering pond called Lake Dorado is a long, thin bridge only for select personnel. NBA players can walk across it unperturbed on their way to a restaurant, or perhaps to do some fishing, during their off time.

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There’s freedom and confinement in the NBA’s “bubble” at Disney World. Players can’t leave the property, or even cross certain boundaries, lest they be punished with extra quarantine time.

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“The hardest adjustment probably is just not being able to do what you want to do,” Lakers center JaVale McGee said. “It’s sort of like being in college and being in a dorm and going to eat food that they prepare for you. It’s just different for a long-spanning time; it’s like a three-month road trip. So it’s definitely different. But it’s not that bad.”

During the day they are like attendees of a conference milling about the convention center. Each team has a room designated just for its players, with a food station outside where a server wearing a mask and gloves stands behind a Plexiglass shield to pile that day’s menu onto the plates. Sneeze guards extend high enough to shield the food from players’ faces, and it works with most of them.

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Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee is pictured Feb. 12, 2020, in Denver.
Lakers center JaVale McGee says of NBA bubble life: “It’s sort of like being in college and being in a dorm and going to eat food that they prepare for you. ... It’s like a three-month road trip.”
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

This conference, though, will last three months for some.

On days when the Lakers’ practice, LeBron James and Anthony Davis can be seen getting off a bus and walking down a hallway past scanners that aim to ensure that anyone entering is healthy, and anyone exiting is wearing masks and carrying light bags with what they’ll need for that day’s practice. James and Davis and their teammates might walk by the Boston Celtics or the Milwaukee Bucks on their way to their meeting rooms.

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The rooms aim to give teams as much familiarity as possible. Many dining and film rooms, including that of the Lakers, are adorned with oversized game photos of players and coaches — the kind that might appear on the walls of their own practice facilities.

Some teams create a makeshift film room on their practice courts, but the Lakers will hold their film sessions in one of these rooms with 24 chairs placed a few feet apart. The film can be projected on the room’s front wall, the presentation a collaborative effort between Vogel, his video coordinators back in Los Angeles and the coaches here. Assistant Quinton Crawford doesn’t normally handle video responsibilities, but he’s doing it here. Crawford also helps to scout future opponents.

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Versatility by necessity is common for teams in the bubble who had to leave many people they consider essential back home. One day Vogel and general manager Rob Pelinka served as practice cones.

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“I didn’t see any readily available cones so I stood off of one elbow, he stood off of the other elbow and the players had to run around us,” Vogel said. “We served as cones during practice, which was new for both of us.”

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel, left, talks with forward Anthony Davis.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel, pictured with Anthony Davis on March 3, has found out that versatility by necessity is common for teams in the bubble.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Said Pelinka: “There’s no task that is too big or too small for any individual. If that means in practice Frank and I have to be cones that guys can run around, if that means if a player falls and one of us has gotta pick up a towel and wipe up sweat, we’re here ultimately to service the players’ needs.”

Practices happen in various locations. One is the convention center at the Coronado Springs Hotel, which is connected to the Gran Destino Tower where the Lakers, Clippers, Heat, Jazz, Celtics, Bucks and Denver Nuggets stay, and has three ballrooms that have been decorated like home courts.

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Kyle Kuzma made 10 of 13 shots and scored 25 points in the Lakers’ 119-112 defeat of the Orlando Magic in a scrimmage Saturday.

Teams have a three-hour window to practice. Once they’re done they can’t return, and a cleaning crew rushes in to prepare the space for the next team. Departing players must board their buses and go back to the hotel together.

At first, players couldn’t visit anyone in other hotels. Now, that restriction has been mostly lifted. And reunions still happen organically.

Not long after Vogel finished his news conference Saturday, he saw a familiar face in the hallway.

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“What’s up Solo!” Vogel said. “Great to see you.”

“Good to see you, coach,” said Heat forward Solomon Hill, who played for Vogel in Indiana.

“You’re with the Heat now?” Vogel said. “That’s a great organization. Good luck.”


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