Even in the dream, I keep my mask on. I will soon be free from the bubble but not from the novel coronavirus pandemic that made it necessary.
“You only really get it if you’re here,” Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul said of the bubble, and he was right. Depending on the hour, it was whimsical or grueling, exhilarating or disheartening, bustling or tedious, sunny or stormy. Everyone arrived in July knowing that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and there’s a sadness in knowing that all future reporting assignments will pale in comparison.
The bubble opened with an overwhelming rush of media interest that mostly consisted of morbid curiosity and rubbernecking. I did countless interviews about my seven-day quarantine inside a hotel room, and everyone asked about what would happen if someone got sick or died. Once it became clear that the NBA’s stringent health protocols were working, the ambulance chasers moved on.
Now, physical and mental exhaustion reign, and it has become clear that the bubble was meant for die-hards. Two of the league’s most prominent workout maniacs — LeBron James and Jimmy Butler — are going head-to-head in an unpredictable and fiercely contested NBA Finals. It’s fitting that James’s Los Angeles Lakers and Butler’s Miami Heat are the last teams standing after a months-long war of attrition. Either will be worthy champions, and there should be no talk of an asterisk.
This series is the least-watched of the 10 Finals that I have covered, in part because of calendar disruption and competition from the NFL and MLB. But it is also the most important by a wide margin. The NBA had never faced an existential threat like the pandemic, and its ability to partner with the National Basketball Players Association to construct a functional restart that will crown a champion is an incredible feat that must be remembered by history. This was not guaranteed: A coronavirus outbreak and a canceled season were very real alternatives back in March.
If James can finish off a sensational run with his fourth championship, it should be regarded as one of the most impressive achievements of his career. He has guided the Lakers to a 15-5 postseason record and a 3-2 series lead over the Heat, and he has brought the absolute best out of Anthony Davis. At 35, he picked apart opponents with his mind and held up better than players in their mid-20s. He did it all while campaigning for social justice causes, organizing player protests and absorbing immense heat from political adversaries. If James wasn’t so gung-ho about competing, the whole experiment might not have happened at all.
James and his fellow stars found themselves balancing basketball and advocacy, so it’s fitting that the bubble’s most memorable moment was a game that never took place. I’ll never forget plugging in my laptop Aug. 26, setting out my iced tea, taking my seat and then looking up to realize that only one of the two teams was on the court. That impromptu protest by the Milwaukee Bucks was historic, front-page news that connected sports, politics, racial protests and labor relations.
I tapped out my story on my iPhone while standing outside the Bucks’ locker room for hours, sweating our print deadline. The stakeout lasted so long that players occasionally emerged to walk silently past a group of reporters to use the restroom. Meanwhile, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and hundreds of other Twitter users debated whether their action should be called a boycott or a strike. The protest led to a three-day shutdown and short-lived threats of calling off the playoffs. Even in the tensest moments, I trusted that the players’ sweat equity would see the bubble through.
The bubble humanized the players. The walls of fame in the outside world — sunglasses, tinted windows, security details, community gates — were less pronounced in this environment. Their hotels were off-limits to the media, but players were stuck dealing with reporters almost every day. The coaches and superstars shouldered a heavy media burden well. When James said he had spent “numerous nights and days thinking about leaving the bubble,” he received a round of knowing nods from the small group of reporters.
I will remember the bubble fondly, but I won’t miss much. I loved the courtside seats and the wildlife around campus. I photographed alligators, egrets, snakes, anhingas, hawks, raccoons, armadillos, deer, frogs, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies, geckos, snails and Florida-size bugs. I cherished my ability to attend every single playoff game from the start of the second round, something that might never again be possible. I enjoyed seeing the referees compete at morning pickleball like it was their own professional sport. The daily testing was the ultimate privilege.
This wasn’t summer camp, and it wasn’t glamorous. I have lived for three months in Casitas 4432, a simple hotel room that I have treated like a dorm. My mother would be appalled by the cold pizza in the corner and the piles of dirty clothes, but visitors were forbidden so all bets were off.
Most nights, I stayed up past 3 a.m., and I occasionally watched so much basketball that I left the arena dizzy and lightheaded. Work-life balance was nonexistent, and my iPhone screen time peaked at more than 11 hours per day in August. I coped by shopping online late at night; I now own the same polo shirt in seven different colors. I don’t even like polo shirts.
Halfway through my stay, I noticed that I was rejecting many of the comforts that gradually became available. Instead of using a fluff-and-fold delivery service, I hauled my clothes up and down four flights of stairs to use a shared laundry room, something I haven’t done since college. I didn’t care for the food on campus, but I never once ordered takeout. I never rode a bike or used the gym, preferring instead to walk outside during the hottest part of the day, accumulating nearly 700 miles around a 1½-mile loop. If nothing else, the bubble honed my masochism.
There were moments of frustration and heartbreak. Close friends struggled with isolation; colleagues and players departed to attend funerals. Media members who left the bubble early did so with guilt and fear of missing out; many of those who stayed the entire time struggled with homesickness.
In September, wildfires leveled several towns in my home state of Oregon. I organized a fundraiser but still felt utterly helpless — unable to walk three miles down the road, let alone travel 3,000 miles to hug my parents. I had mentally prepared myself for the bubble’s monotony and workload, but that still got me.
A major key to the bubble’s success was the NBA’s attention to detail on everything from logistics to event planning to internal communication. There were many policies and rules, but they were logical and regularly reinforced. Arena innovations such as video boards, enhanced microphones and a sliding rail camera functioned as expected. There were daily emails to keep reporters in the loop, and there was always food when there was supposed to be food. When a bus skipped a stop and left me hanging, an employee issued a walkie-talkie dispatch to summon a new charter bus to transport me — only me — to the arena.
There was a personal kindness expressed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum, vice president of referee development Monty McCutchen and the league’s public relations staff, headed by Tim Frank, that is difficult to describe without sounding like a Stockholm syndrome victim. The league’s leaders were receptive to feedback and open about their limitations, and their steadfast desire to complete the entire restart without a positive test revealed compassion rarely seen in big business. They had billions of reasons to keep everyone healthy, but their conduct and follow-through stood in stark contrast to those of leaders in the federal government and other sports.
While the bubble accomplished its mission and salvaged the postseason, it didn’t save the league. Far from it. Still facing billions in projected losses, the NBA and the players’ union must negotiate the financial terms for next season and decide when to start, where to play and whether to allow fans in the arenas. The league’s television ratings took a massive hit because of the four-month hiatus. The bubble was a Band-Aid, not a panacea.
I leave the bubble with pride in my work and gratitude that The Washington Post invested significant resources in this assignment. I leave with cheesy Disney T-shirts that I will never wear, a 3,600-piece Lego Lamborghini set I spent two months building and plans to write a book about this experience. I leave confident that I will never willingly return to Disney World unless the NBA comes calling again.
I also leave with trepidation. The onerous rules have made me feel immune to the coronavirus, and I must reacclimate to an outside world where more than 213,000 Americans have died and the president has been hospitalized. After 90 tests during my bubble stay, I wonder how long it will be before I seek one out for peace of mind.
For all its challenges, the bubble worked. No one has died. No players have gotten sick. No games have been canceled. That will be the restart’s legacy. The bubble was an impressive public health achievement at a time when the United States desperately needed one, and it should stand as a model for what can be done when immense resources are deployed thoughtfully, in good faith and in line with medical and scientific recommendations.
My persistent daydream will soon become a reality, and my virus fears are rising. I have gotten a long taste of what life was like in a coronavirus-free world, and liberation from the bubble means once again becoming captive to the germs.