NBA commissioner Adam Silver initially resisted the idea of a bubble.
“When the idea was first broached, it didn’t sound logistically realistic,” Silver said.
National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts was skeptical. “I didn’t say it at the time, but I didn’t think this was going to happen,” she said. “This virus is so insidious. I thought she was going to say, ‘Good try, but I got this.’ ”
Silver warmed to the idea when Disney properties near Orlando, Florida, emerged as a possibility. “We didn’t want to turn this into a fortress,” he said. “It would be too easy ‘building a wall’ to keep people from wandering in and out.
“It wasn’t until I began my discussions with (Disney executive chairman) Bob Iger that there appeared a realistic geographical footprint with 22 teams where we could create an environment; where we wouldn’t be secluding people in a hotel tower for multi-months.
“They would still be separated from the general public, but they would still have an opportunity for outdoor recreational activities, physical distancing with relative ease but still creating a community. The Disney World environment was the turning point for me.”
The NBA and the NBPA developed comprehensive health and safety protocols and pulled off an amazing feat. After 107 days, 172 games and thousands of COVID-19 tests at the Disney campus, the NBA crowned a champion through unprecedented collaboration among the league, its teams, players, broadcast partners, referees, media, support staff and Disney employees.
Not only was the NBA bubble a success, it was a model for operating a safe and healthy environment that mitigated the spread of COVID-19 through daily testing, social distancing, mask-wearing and contact tracing.
“We had zero positive tests for as long as we were here – 95 days maybe for myself,” Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James said. “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.”
It required a cast of thousands to pull it off. Here are eight people who played a significant role in the bubble’s success:
Today, Silver is relieved.
“We knew going into the bubble that there were lots of things that could go wrong, and it required an enormous amount of good fortune to ultimately conclude the season without any positive cases — not only without any positive cases but actually make it to crowning a champion,” Silver said.
Throughout the restart, he carried enormous worry on two fronts. “What kept me up most,” he said, “were the daily test results and concern whether organizationally and collectively we would have the discipline to fight through this virus over a three-month period.”
The other? Parents away from their children for an extended period. “There were so many conflicting emotions because with more success on the court came additional separation,” Silver said.
“Having had hundreds of conversations with participants, those were the issues that had the most direct impact on me: the separation of young children who undoubtedly had the most difficulty understanding why they had to be separated from a parent for such a long time.”
With the 2019-20 season over, the 2020-21 season isn’t far away as the league aims for a January return.
“All our efforts now are directed at returning our teams to NBA cities and NBA arenas, with the next step of moving fans into arenas,” Silver said. “We also have the benefit of additional learning from other leagues, namely baseball and NFL, that have been playing in front of fans at least in some markets.”
But Silver also noted the uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases and a majority of jurisdictions where NBA teams do not allow fans in indoor arenas right now.
“We continue to work with municipal authorities and the CDC on designing an acceptable protocol,” he said. “As successful as the bubble was in Orlando, we miss our fans, as do our players.”
Flatow does not have a background in city planning. But the NBA’s executive vice president of global events built a basketball city.
From getting practice courts shipped from Horner Flooring in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to making sure hair stylists and barbers were on campus, to providing activities like golf and fishing, to procuring different kinds of drinking water — Flatow was responsible.
“The most important part of pulling everything together was the collaboration,” Flatow said. “With every event and program we do around the world, it is a cross-functional effort, but in this case, it was hyper-sensitive collaboration in terms of making sure we looked at it from every angle. We had so many logistical challenges that we had never faced before from a health and safety perspective.”
Flatow and her team ended up with an operations manual that was more than 100 pages. Even getting weight machines affixed to walls required Disney approval, and they had to coordinate with the NBA’s health and safety team to write protocols for outside chefs who provided meals for players.
“Then we just continued to refine that,” she said. “We looked for improvements every day from the moment that the teams arrived on July 7, and we did briefings with every team when they arrived so we would understand what was most important and how we could make them comfortable, knowing they would be here at a minimum of six weeks and at a maximum 12 weeks.”
Weiss started talking to COVID-19 experts, including Dr. David Ho, the HIV expert who worked with Magic Johnson, in January because the NBA has employees in China.
An attorney, Weiss is the NBA’s senior vice president of players’ matters – a wide canopy that covers player health and well-being, including concussions, infectious diseases and mental health. He sent his first coronavirus memo to teams on Jan. 31.
“We always pay attention to infectious disease,” Weiss said. “We worked with CDC on guidelines for USA Basketball’s men’s and women’s teams for the 2016 Rio Olympics and the Zika virus.”
But the idea of finishing a season in a bubble “sounded so complicated and far-fetched,” Weiss said. “The first challenge was thinking of all of the challenges.”
Weiss and the NBA’s medical team put together health and safety protocols – a 108-page document that covered just about every scenario for anyone inside the bubble, including how to clean a basketball.
Testing was at the forefront of the bubble’s success.
“Our infectious disease doctors thought we could test every day and identify if anyone was infected and create this bubble,” Weiss said. “We didn’t know if any of this would work. We thought it could, hoped it could, but we didn’t know.”
Orlando Magic CEO Martins has a business relationship with Disney. The company’s name is on the Magic’s jersey as part of a sponsorship deal, and the team’s nickname is a nod to the Magic Kingdom.
But Martins also has a personal relationship with Disney. The father of teen daughters, “we’ve spent a lot of time at Disney,” he said.
When talk of the bubble began, Martins, a member of the league’s restart committee, heard Houston, Las Vegas and even the Bahamas as possible sites. He called Silver and said, “‘You are thinking about Orlando, aren’t you?’ I just walked him through what I believe is a perfect location because of the hotels, the food and beverage operation, the transportation system, and of course, having three venues we could play the games in and knowing Disney was completely shut down because of the pandemic.”
Spruell, the NBA’s president of league operations, compared the bubble to a puzzle. But it was a puzzle that often had missing pieces, and he had to create new ones.
The arenas at the Wide World of Sports complex don’t have showers. During a normal situation when assistant coaches put players through pregame routines and work up a sweat, they have a place to a shower and get ready for the game. The NBA provided no-rinse bathing wipes. That doesn’t seem like a big thing, but it’s something the league never had to address.
That sums up the bubble: addressing topics that were never on the league’s radar.
When players began going out of bounds early in the restart because of the odd depth-perception of a near-empty gym made the sidelines and baselines hard to see, the league widened them by six inches. The league constructed a new bench configuration for social distancing and required inactive players to wear masks on the bench.
Spruell, a lineman at Notre Dame in the 1980s, and his staff were also responsible for creating a game schedule, a practice schedule and referee schedule and conducting a walk-through of the arena before every game – a sizable task, especially at the beginning when 22 teams were there.
“It was the little details that made it work,” Spruell said.
With regularity during the NBA’s hiatus, the Dallas Mavericks’ Powell hopped on a call with Silver and fellow players — Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry.
The small working group – a cross-section of different levels of player status – had open and honest discussions about what was at stake and what players needed if the league were to resume the season in a bubble. It was a forum for those players to learn what the league was thinking and discuss health, safety and financial ramifications.
“Through the process of talking with those guys on those calls, I really got to see just how many people were involved and how many minds were working in overdrive to find solutions to problems that were really coming up every day,” Powell said. “Every single step of the process had to be thought out, because it’s people’s lives that were at stake at the end of the day.”
Powell, who was injured and didn’t play in the bubble, Paul and Lowry gave strong opinions on what players needed on campus to make it work, what location would work best and what a schedule would look like.
He also learned what was required to make it happen.
“To be able to see behind the curtain and realize how things operate, especially in a time like this where there’s such a high level of urgency and laser-focus to get everything just right,” Powell said. “I have a whole new appreciation for the business side and the logistics side and the scheduling side of this league, and how hard they work and how talented they are to allow us to put a product out like we have here in the bubble this year.”
At first, NBPA executive director Roberts wasn’t sure whether she would go to the bubble.
“I believed we needed to maintain a population in the bubble that was only consisting of people who were necessary to the success of the game,” she said. “Frankly, I didn’t think I was an essential person.”
Then, Roberts heard from a player. “In the most matter-of-fact way he could have possibly said it, ‘Michele, you’re coming down, right?’ I didn’t miss a beat. I said ‘Absolutely.’ I still didn’t think there was much value in being there, maybe three weeks tops.”
Then she arrived.
“It occurred to me there was an opportunity to interact with players that I had not been able to enjoy in the six years I’ve been in the job,” Roberts said. “Living in the same space, you do run into them – at the restaurant, going to get tested, at the pool. All these amazing opportunities presented themselves and I found myself enjoying it.”
King doesn’t work for the NBA. She doesn’t work for an NBA team. But NBA TV’s Jared Greenberg called King the real MVP of the bubble.
She is the concierge for ABC Fine Wine and Spirits, a family-run business that has more than 123 stores in Florida, and she was responsible for providing alcohol to bubble-dwellers. Her service was necessary.
“We have a bunch of new faceless friends from the bubble,” King said. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the camaraderie every day.”
The concierge side of the business took a hit during the pandemic, when catered events such as weddings and graduation parties were postponed or canceled.
“What we do on a regular basis basically came to a standstill,” King said.
Then the NBA called. King, who has a passion for wine and a college degree in hospitality services, and her team began making deliveries on July 16, and “there’s never been a slow day since,” she said.
She declined to divulge which team or player spent the most money but said she fulfilled about 20 orders a day.
King’s son played AAU basketball, and she has the NBA app on her phone. But she paid even closer attention to results in the bubble.
“I looked at scores every day so I could celebrate some of the folks on teams I’ve talked with,” King said. “This is a special and unique experience.”