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Before the NBA lands in Florida, a basketball bubble will be tested in Ohio

The Basketball Tournament, which will test the NBA's bubble plan, will be held in Columbus, Ohio, this month. (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

Players from 22 teams will begin arriving next week at the NBA’s Disney World campus, where they will live in restricted luxury hotels and play in empty gyms for up to three months as the league attempts to restart amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

But LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and company won’t be the first hoopers to inhabit a large-scale, quarantined bubble on American soil. That honor belongs to more than 300 players who are descending on Columbus, Ohio, this week to compete in The Basketball Tournament, a made-for-TV, winner-take-all event with a million-dollar grand prize.

“This is this tuneup before the NBA,” said Andrew Dakich, a former Ohio State player who will compete in the tournament. “This is the JV before the varsity.”

TBT, which will air on ESPN and begins Saturday, draws an eclectic mix of players, including those with college, overseas, G League and NBA experience. This year’s 24-team field includes numerous former NBA players, including Joe Johnson, Jordan Crawford and Jared Sullinger. With Ice Cube’s Big3 league forced to cancel its season because of the pandemic, TBT will be the country’s first major basketball event since the NBA indefinitely suspended its season and the college game came to a halt in mid-March.

Salvaging a tournament and crafting a workable health and safety protocol took months of planning and required significant compromises. Jon Mugar, TBT’s founder, realized in March that he would need to scrap plans to play in nine cities over nearly three weeks. Competing in front of fans was impossible because of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines against large indoor gatherings.

The proposed summer tour gave way to an 11-day tournament at a single, centralized site within a reasonable driving distance for much of the country: Nationwide Arena in Columbus, home to the NHL’s Blue Jackets. After 64 teams competed for a $2 million payout last year, TBT was forced to scale back its field and reduce the prize pool.

“Once the pandemic started unraveling, it became a pretty big obstacle and it was increasingly obvious that we wouldn’t be able to put on TBT as it was originally conceived,” Mugar said. “The difference in [prize money] is going into health and safety entirely — from testing to lodging to meals. [We spent] more than a million dollars on health and safety.”

Mugar and co-founder Dan Friel contacted medical experts, including Tara Kirk Sell, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, to craft their bubble and coronavirus testing procedures. When tackling the major health questions, TBT enjoyed certain advantages compared to the NBA.

Ohio reported fewer than 800 new cases Tuesday, while Florida, the site of the NBA’s bubble, topped 6,000. TBT required about 3,000 coronavirus tests, but the NBA will need more than 10,000. TBT’s players only expect free food and housing, while NBA players are accustomed to luxury accommodations and amenities.

Holding a smaller, shorter event helps in many ways. TBT will play 23 games over 11 days; the NBA will play more than 150 over three months. TBT needs to house fewer than 500 people; the NBA’s bubble will be more than twice as big. TBT needs just one game court and four practice spaces; the NBA will use three game courts and require extensive practice courts and workout facilities.

“You can’t do basketball without a bubble because it’s close contact and indoors,” Sell said. “The larger the bubble, the more porous it is. I pushed [TBT] to have as few people involved as possible. The NBA bubble is going to be huge. If you have an infected player, you have such a high risk of infecting other players.”

Sell guided TBT to a testing procedure that required a test before players departed for Columbus, a test upon arrival, a 24-hour in-room isolation period and three additional tests during a brief training camp. All players will be in isolation for at least five days before they play.

Hand sanitizer, masks and gloves will be readily available, and players will receive meals at their hotel door or in grab-and-go fashion rather than sitting for team dinners. Teams will be discouraged from intermingling away from the court, and they will be kept in four separate groups to reduce the risk of a crippling outbreak.

Access to the court during games will be limited to roughly 55 people, including both teams, television production personnel, TBT staffers and arena personnel. Sideline staff such as the clock operator will be kept at least six feet away from the court, but players won’t be required to wear masks on the bench.

The biggest risk to TBT’s bubble, Sell said, is a player tiring of the isolation, entering the outside world and bringing the virus back. As such, players will be kept under tight security at a single hotel one block from the arena.

“College basketball players are always trying to bend the rules,” Dakich said. “You’re telling me they’re not going to try to sneak in their girlfriends? But it would be very hard to do. There’s security downstairs, in the lobby and near the ballrooms [for practices]. It’s all blocked off with gates and tags saying where not to go.”

If a player tests positive during the tournament, his entire team will be removed and replaced by one of three standby teams. TBT’s organizers felt there was no other way to remain on schedule, and they are prepared to pull the plug in the event of a major outbreak.

“There’s definitely a point where if we felt that we couldn’t carry out our health and safety plan, we simply won’t [proceed],” Mugar said.

While Sell said she has been “saddened” by a recent rise in coronavirus cases and felt the country’s pandemic response has been “really bad” overall, she expressed confidence that TBT will be able to crown a champion.

“The measure of success can’t be that you had zero cases,” Sell said. “Your measure of success has to be that you found any cases that were there and controlled the spread. … [TBT can] set an example of how we might be able to move forward in a responsible way [as a society], even if we have to deal with this disease for a while. Public health and businesses can work together.”

NBA stars such as Kevin Durant have expressed concern about playing basketball during the pandemic. But TBT received applications from 120 teams with players such as Dakich who were eager to relive their glory days and chase the prize money during basketball’s monotonous drought.

“Truthfully, my dad wanted me out of the damn house,” said Dakich, who moved back home this spring to save on rent. “Our first game is on the Fourth of July. Maybe that gives people an inclination to stay their a-- inside and not let this [coronavirus] spike keep happening.”

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