The best and worst of the NBA bubble: A 2020 restart

Photo of Disney Wide World Of Sports complex in Disney World, Florida
Greg Goebel/Creative Commons

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Since its inception in 1949, the NBA has been — for the most part — an escape from reality. As soon as the referee blows the whistle, the basketball leaves their fingertips and the clock starts ticking down, everything else in the world gradually fades away. The one goal shared by players, coaches and fans? Win the game at all costs.

On March 11, that all came crashing down when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Wednesday night’s slate of games was immediately scrapped, and the league was forced to close up shop.

Given the threatening uncertainty of the pandemic at the time, the 2019-20 NBA season looked to be as good as gone. But soon thereafter, necessary adjustments were made accordingly. For better or for worse, on June 4, the league’s commission announced a plan that would bring basketball back into business: reopen its doors in Disney World.

So far, after nonstop weeks of back-to-back games, the league has largely held up its initial promise. Hence, here is my list of the best and worst of what we’ve seen from the NBA bubble.

The worst

No fans 

Starting with the most glaring absence, it should go without saying that the NBA is nothing without its fans.

Gone are the days of rallying crowds of tens of thousands of people. Gone are the waves of fans sporting the home team’s single-color playoff tees. Gone are the courtside appearances of legendary celebrity superfans, such as Drake and Jack Nicholson, yelling from the sidelines after a botched call from the referee. Instead, entry into the bubble is shared only by a select few, including members of the media, coaching staff, team executives, players and family.

Now, in defense of the NBA, there’s basically no live, in-person audience in any globally recognized major sports league. Or at least, there really shouldn’t be. If anything, the NBA has arguably made the best of its present situation through real-time, virtual additions of fans via Microsoft Teams.

Fake crowd noise

This may be a controversial one, but if no one else is going to say it, then I will: The fake crowd noise is cheesy. It’s also kind of unsettling.

The crowd noise is not so much an annoyance as it is a dreadful reminder that things are definitely not normal — and probably won’t be anytime soon. I get that the NBA is trying to build an artificial “home court” atmosphere, but as I previously mentioned, it’s never going to work without the physical presence of fans. When the arena is not even close to as little as half its full capacity, something about crowd noise just doesn’t add up.

The “asterisk”

In addressing an especially hot topic of debate as of late, an informal asterisk next to whichever team ultimately wins the chip is patently unfair. For starters, every team is dealing with the same situation in adjusting to the bubble — they are all on a level playing field. It’d be absolutely foolish to think that one team can have a game-changing advantage over the other (unless, of course, you’re the Houston Astros).

An asterisk next to the championship team is also just mean-spirited. It’s more a means of discrediting whoever wins the championship than it is to celebrate the fact that we’re lucky enough even to have basketball back in the first place. I’m looking at you, Skip Bayless.

The best

Vlogs!

With the announcement of the NBA’s restart in Disney World came a flurry of mixed emotions, one of which was fascination by the fans. What’s life like in the bubble? How do the players feel about it? Is the NBA really doing what it says it’s doing?

These questions have been answered not only by the media but also by the players themselves. Thanks to 76ers guard Matisse Thybulle and Lakers center JaVale McGee, “Life in the Bubble” is not so exclusive to those physically present within it. Through these players’ YouTube vlogs, you too can experience the unique accommodations of an NBA-Disney World collaboration, including the types of rooms and resorts offered, the cafeteria-style food prepared and the activities available for leisure, including fishing, cornhole and bowling, to name a few.

Lack of COVID-19 cases

When setting up the bubble campus, health and safety were at the top of the NBA’s priorities. As far as we’ve seen, the league has been extremely successful. Since its restart in July, there have been zero new COVID-19 cases reported.

This is due, in large part, to the strict measures the NBA has taken in ensuring minimal spread of the disease. Masks, social distancing and daily tests have all contributed to the bubble’s success.

When players are caught (or even speculated to have been) violating established guidelines, the league has had little to no remorse. Case in point? After picking up chicken wings from Atlanta strip club Magic City, Clippers guard Lou Williams was put into a 10-day quarantine upon return to the bubble and was forced to forfeit $150,000 of his salary. It’s worth noting that for the same amount of money, Williams could’ve easily waited a couple of more weeks after his team’s playoff elimination to Denver and bought himself all the chicken wings he desired (100,000 wings, to be exact).

Social justice awareness

Now on a more serious note, basketball is actually not an escape from reality, as we’ve seen especially throughout these past few weeks. Standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the NBA and its players have used their prominent influence on society for the better, bringing awareness to important social justice issues that need to be addressed on a purely nonpartisan platform.

Walkouts, jersey messages and televised voting registration announcements have all put a national spotlight on the NBA. Its goal to help pursue fundamental social equality is now as big a deal as the games themselves are. Because the athletes are using their voices to spark discussion and to mobilize people beyond the sidelines, I’d argue that we’re seeing some of the very best that basketball has offered yet. And it’s all happening in the midst of a pandemic.

Ryan Chien writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].