Basketball

A leap into the great unknown

ORLANDO • LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers has likened the “bubble” to a youth basketball tournament for grown men who happen to be some of the most recognisable sports stars on the planet.

C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers combats the pangs he feels for his fiancee and his dog back home with “my essential oils and my dehumidifier and my books” and the occasional indulgence in wine he packed.

Gone are the ostentatious arena entrances dressed in the finest fashions and the whirl of big-city night life. Four months after Covid-19 sent basketball into an unprecedented shutdown, the National Basketball Association (NBA) takes a leap into the unknown today as the league bids to resurrect its season at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

The Utah Jazz launch the rebooted campaign against the New Orleans Pelicans before James and Kawhi Leonard go head-to-head in a heavyweight Los Angeles derby between the Lakers and the Clippers.

The two games mark the start of a painstakingly crafted plan to stage the remainder of the basketball season safely in the midst of an ongoing pandemic which has already claimed more than 150,000 lives in the United States.

To mitigate the risks, the NBA is basing 22 teams within a tightly controlled bubble inside Disney World’s sprawling campus in Orlando. Teams will play games at three venues in the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex inside the park, with no fans in attendance and only a smattering of journalists at each game.

About 350 players will be housed at three hotels located throughout Disney World, with access to each location severely restricted and visits from outsiders strictly forbidden until the play-offs start.

Players arriving in Orlando were required to spend 48 hours isolated in their hotel rooms until they had returned two negative tests for Covid-19.

Testing will continue inside the bubble but it is not known how frequently this will take place.

This “bubble” experiment might even be necessary for the 2020-21 season to be held, National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said on Tuesday.

“I’m not in the (President Donald) Trump camp in believing it’s all going to go away in two weeks, but I’m praying, praying that there will be a different set of circumstances that will allow us to play in a different way,” he told ESPN.

NOT TOO SHABBY

Let’s be clear, mate. This is not Syria. We’re living in a bloody resort.

STEVEN ADAMS, the Thunder’s Kiwi centre, on the luxurious surroundings of Disney World.

While multi-millionaire stars such as the Lakers’ James have joked that entering the bubble felt like starting a jail term, so far the launch of the project has gone smoothly.

Practice games have passed off without a hitch, and the most recent round of testing found zero positive cases out of 346 players tested.

There have been some early glitches, however, as players adjust to the relatively spartan surroundings of the bubble.

Clippers guard Lou Williams was forced to quarantine for 10 days after being photographed at an Atlanta strip club during a trip out of the bubble to attend a family funeral. The Sacramento Kings’ Richaun Holmes also landed back in quarantine after he left the bubble to pick up an order of chicken wings.

The league is spending at least US$180 million (S$248 million) with ESPN’s parent company, Disney, on its testing operation to avoid a potential loss of US$1 billion in television revenue.

Inside the bubble’s three arenas, the legacy of the tumultuous protests which erupted in the weeks after the death of George Floyd in May will be on full view.

Giant “Black Lives Matter” slogans have been written on each court, while players will be allowed to wear jerseys adorned with social justice messages ranging from “I Can’t Breathe” to “Justice Now” and “Education Reform”.

On the courts, all eyes will be on James and his Lakers teammates as they attempt to return to the pinnacle of the NBA when the season wraps up in October.

The biggest threat to James’ hopes of winning a fourth NBA championship is expected to come from the Eastern Conference, where Giannis Antetokounmpo is aiming to guide the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in nearly half a century. The Bucks had run away with the Eastern Conference before the hiatus, opening up a 6.5-game lead over the defending champions Toronto Raptors.

Antetokounmpo, who grew up in poverty in Greece as the son of Nigerian immigrants, smiles at the suggestion that NBA players are facing hardship in their confined environment in Orlando.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in life, there’s always something to complain, there’s always a problem and an issue,” he said. “My apartment in Greece, when I was younger, with my four brothers, was way smaller than the suite that I have in the hotel, so I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.”

Antetokounmpo’s viewpoint was echoed by Oklahoma City Thunder’s Steven Adams.

“Let’s be clear, mate,” the New Zealander said. “This is not Syria. We’re living in a bloody resort.”

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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