LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Chirp, chirp, chirp!
“Is that me ringing?” New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry wondered aloud, looking down at the proximity monitor clipped to his credential as he walked from the practice facility inside Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to conduct his virtual news conference on July 10.
Upon arrival at the NBA’s Orlando campus, every player, coach and staff member was given a small, white device programmed to beep whenever within six feet of another person. After five seconds, the device blinks red. After 10 seconds, it plays a short tune.
It couldn’t be Gentry’s alarm, though, a public relations staffer said. The Pelicans’ chargers hadn’t arrived yet. In fact, the majority of teams’ proximity monitors had been delivered without chargers, rendering them useless for a time.
After a few awkward moments, it turned out to be another NBA staff member and reporter — who had been given chargers, and remembered to use them — who had set off the devices.
It was just one of a few bumps to be smoothed over during the league’s adjustment period, as the first few days saw teams arrive at the Disney campus.
Teams have largely been complimentary of how the NBA is handling life in the bubble. Executives acknowledge how difficult a task this is for the league to pull off and have said that most concerns are immediately met with an attempt to remedy the situation.
On July 11, when the Milwaukee Bucks were set to clear quarantine, coaches saw that they were scheduled to be released from their hotel room confinement at 3 p.m., only to discover that their practice slot — determined by the league — was from 1 p.m.-4 p.m.
“The phrase we used with the team was ‘a little bit of a gift,'” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We thought we might not clear quarantine before our practice slot.”
One executive discovered on a walk that there was no clear marking of where the NBA’s bubble boundaries ended and gave way to a public sidewalk near the hotel.
But with something this complicated — coronavirus cases are surging in Florida and around the United States — things are bound to slip between the cracks. While players are going from practice to fishing trips to food expeditions, the NBA finds itself performing a balancing act keeping players healthy and happy under unusual circumstances.
“What the league is working to pull off is just f—ing epic,” one executive said. “I do feel really good about how things are going thus far.”
For the players, the past three weeks have been relatively smooth. Teams are getting acclimated to the Disney campus as the league continues to take massive precautions, working to make sure its players have all the comforts, food and approved fun that bubble life can offer.
Here are scenes from inside the NBA’s campus.
A HIDDEN GEM has emerged amid the player complaints about soggy sandwiches and plastic-wrapped eggs.
Rix Sports Bar and Grill, tucked between the hallway to the practice courts inside the Coronado Springs resort and the hallway to players’ rooms, has become the unofficial hangout spot inside the bubble.
“It is tough when you’re in your room 24/7 other than when you’re in practice,” Bucks guard George Hill said, when asked about Rix. “So, just to get out and sit in some regular chairs to kind of make it feel like it’s just [normal] life itself still, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
By 7:30 every evening, the dark bar is buzzing with players, coaches and trainers. Starting Sunday, the place was open only to NBA players and personnel.
JR Smith isn’t a fan of the blanket he was given in his hotel room in Orlando, but he did enjoy the selection of food.
On the night of July 13, Bucks guard Kyle Korver munched at a corner booth with Milwaukee’s training staff. On the opposite side of the bar, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra nibbled on a salad while chatting with assistant coaches. Boston Celtics players Jayson Tatum and Javonte Green ate burgers at two tables pushed together near the entrance.
The cuisine is a blend of classic bar grub and comfort food: burgers, shrimp and grits, grilled cheese with bacon and a cup of tomato soup. There are Beyond Burgers — a non-meat alternative that has become a marketing partner with several NBA players, including Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving.
The wait staff, dressed in grey and black tops, wear masks and clear face shields while offering patrons key lime pie or chocolate cake.
The shelves to the left and right of the large televisions above the black bar top have been adorned with basketballs bearing the logos for every team staying in the hotel: The Los Angeles Lakers, Bucks, LA Clippers and Toronto Raptors on one side; the Denver Nuggets, Heat, Celtics and Utah Jazz on the other.
Should players or staff be in search of a meal outside of Rix’s 4 p.m. to midnight operating hours — for breakfast, another player lounge located on a dock turned restaurant in the middle of Lago Dorado has become a popular, shaded place to dine — they will be at the mercy of the scheduled, pre-packaged meals delivered to each team’s conference room-turned-dining and team meeting area.
Some teams, including the Heat and Bucks, have plastered larger-than-life photos of flashy dunks, high-fives and bench celebrations on the walls.
Milwaukee’s room even has a pinball machine, and Miami surprised players by adding photos of their families.
“It’s really special,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “We know we’re going to be here for a long time and it was something unbelievable from [the organization] to do that for us.
“Other teams, when they are walking past our room, they’re always looking into our room and say, ‘Whoa, look what they have.'”
The Lakers’ decorative poster-sized photos have spilled out of their meal room into the hallway and have even encroached on the Nuggets’ designated dining room across the hall.
Because Milwaukee’s dining area is the farthest from the hotel, players and coaches have taken to calling down to find out what the room has been stocked with before making the trek. When the food isn’t worth the walk, Rix is the preferred spot.
“Sometimes you get tired of eating the same things over and over,” Hill said. “We’re just going out and trying to find different things to do to keep this thing interesting.”
FOR LUKA DONCIC and the Dallas Mavericks, the closing moments of practice inside the NBA bubble looked normal — for the most part.
But about 100 yards away from the practice court is the package room — a large ballroom that has been converted into a delivery hub at Coronado Springs. Inside are 41 pallets of yellow containers of disinfectant wipes and a dozen more pallets of hand sanitizer.
For Mavericks equipment manager Kory Johnson, this is where his unofficial new job title begins.
Usually, Johnson’s tasks include ensuring players have their carefully curated selection of shoes set up, the correct uniforms in their lockers and their favorite sports drink waiting.
Sanitizing everything in sight has been added to his list of duties.
“My role has expanded because I don’t have anyone here to help me out,” Johnson said. “Being more cautious about the virus and how we do things has changed our responsibilities.”
During practices in Orlando, glove-wearing equipment managers like Johnson rigorously wipe down every basketball a player has touched and each piece of workout equipment.
After group foam rolling at a recent Philadelphia 76ers practice, equipment managers wipes down each roller. After a Pelicans’ team-wide yoga session, every mat is sanitized.
After the Mavericks concluded practice and Johnson finished his cleaning, a crew of four people moved yellow buckets of bleach solution onto the courts. For an hour, they scrubbed down each surface, washing away any germs before the next team took the court.
“With our limited time frame of practice, it really seems like it’s stepped up and rushed a little bit,” Johnson said. “We’re rushing off because they have to get the practice court disinfected before the other team can come in.”
PAUL GEORGE HELD up a large bass by its lower lip, showing off his fresh catch from Lago Dorado — a man-made lake at the center of the Coronado Springs property — to his 8.9 million Instagram followers. “Yes, sir!” he proclaimed.
George is a long-time fisherman — a passion passed down from his father — and the Clippers went on a team fishing excursion before training camp this season. In the NBA bubble, fishing isn’t reserved for the experts, and it’s providing a bonding opportunity and challenge to players.
Fishing has emerged as a favorite pastime for many of the players in between practices and meals. But if you care to fish, go early; the property has only 14 fishing poles available to borrow from a hut outside of the players’ hotel.
On Tuesday night, an employee manning the rentals told ESPN that he had only one pole left because so many players had signed out the equipment overnight. The hotel is ordering more poles to accommodate players’ requests.
On Thursday, teammates George, Montrezl Harrell and Reggie Jackson fished from the wooden bridge that passes over Lago Dorado in search of bass.
“I’ve been chilling, enjoying my teammates,” said Harrell, who on Friday left the campus to tend to a family emergency. “We’ve been fishing; me, PG and Reggie [Jackson] been getting out there, so we’ve been finding ways to stay sane and basically build our team camaraderie.”
Harrell grew up fishing in North Carolina, so he and George taught Jackson how to attach bait and cast a line into the murky green water dotted with signs warning passersby to look out for snakes and alligators.
Heat coaches have rented fishing poles and made evenings out of waiting for fish to bite on the nightcrawlers and worms that the hotel provides for bait. Sixers center Kyle O’Quinn and Memphis Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas have boasted about their catches on social media.
For players staying at Disney’s Grand Floridian and Yacht Club resorts, two-hour guided fishing expeditions — all fishing at Disney is catch-and-release — can be booked through the mobile app that the league created for guests on campus.
Thunder forward Darius Bazley is excited after reeling in a fish while in the NBA bubble.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Darius Bazley posted videos that he took while fishing on a boat on a sunny July 12 afternoon. Bazley told the camera that he had already caught two fish and was “already over it” when his line began to wiggle.
“Take the wheel!” Bazley yelled at teammate Devon Hall, handing over the phone and dramatically reeling in the fish. “Oh damn! Yeah! He’s fighting me! That’s a three-pounder!”
It was only the second time, Bazley said later, that he had ever been fishing.
“I like to make the most out of any situation that I’m in,” said Bazley, adding that Hall is a “pretty good” fisherman.
“It was fun to get out on the water and just do something to get away from the game.”
THERE ARE FOUR pools at Coronado Springs. The bigger, more lavish pool is reserved for players, two are for media and staff and one remains closed.
Located across a long, wooden bridge, the pool is partly hidden behind hedges. To the left is a sand volleyball court. Behind it stands a replica Mayan temple that doubles as a water slide.
On July 11, the first Saturday after players arrived in the NBA bubble, DJ Nasty performed a set at the pool as purple lights pulsed around him. Bartenders wearing masks were prepared to serve their new long-term guests, and lifeguards toting large flotation devices were on patrol poolside.
“I think, quite frankly, a lot of guys just didn’t know about it,” Lakers star Anthony Davis said the next day of his teammate’s solo trek to the pool area.
But even with the best of intentions for player entertainment — the lawn outside of Destino Tower is filled with games like cornhole and giant Connect Four — not everything has been executed perfectly. The league hired one DJ for each of the three player hotels that Saturday, but there were no invites plastered on hotel doors or mass emails sent out.
Several league spokespeople were unclear how, exactly, the event was promoted. Some ventured that it might have been through the mobile app for the players, but at that point only a small number of them had downloaded it. Even fewer had taken the time to peruse it.
Throughout the night, only a handful of coaches and executives dropped by the pool area while Howard listened to clean edits of Tyga’s “Make It Nasty” and Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck.”
Howard pulled out his phone and began streaming on Instagram Live as he approached the bar. After some thought, he made his decision: a “Cancun Colada.”
To end the night, DJ Nasty took the microphone and thanked Howard for being a “real one” as the only player to attend. Howard, like the rest of the players in Orlando, was just making the best of life inside the NBA bubble.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon and Royce Young contributed to this report.