THEY WERE EMOTIONAL, tired and confused.
The LA Clippers were gathered — all 15 players and head coach Doc Rivers — in the middle of the night on the eighth floor of Walt Disney World Resort’s Gran Destino Tower, trying to hold everything together.
It was Aug. 26, and the NBA bubble felt ready to burst. Earlier that afternoon, the Milwaukee Bucks had refused to participate in a playoff game in protest of Wisconsin police shooting Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man. Similar walkouts were rippling across sports.
Blindsided by the Bucks’ decision, NBA players had hastily convened in a hotel conference room to discuss their next steps. In an informal poll on whether to continue the season, the Clippers collectively voted, along with the Los Angeles Lakers, not to play.
Teams were supposed to explain their thinking, but before that could happen, both L.A. teams walked out of the room.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get that far,” Clippers guard Lou Williams said later. “Emotions were running high. So we never had an opportunity to really explain our position because truth be told, we didn’t really know our positions.”
It was well past midnight when the Clippers, already an emotionally volatile group, gathered to sort out their feelings. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and their teammates held a deep conversation with Rivers in the hallway outside their hotel rooms.
Every man spoke. The topics were heavy: the fight for social justice, the mental challenges of living inside a bubble away from loved ones and whether to continue playing the game they love after another Black man had been shot by police — this time, with seven bullets to his back.
Leonard’s message to the players was something he often preaches: Control what you can control.
“We can’t control what’s going on outside [the bubble],” Leonard later recalled saying. “All we can control is what we’re doing on and off the floor. Just take it one message at a time.”
Before the NBA launched the season restart in Orlando, Florida, the Clippers had held a similar players-only meeting in June to decide whether to even go to Walt Disney World and play in light of the social injustice protests around the country. But this gathering felt different.
“It was almost unlike any team meeting I have ever been involved in, [as a] player or coach,” Rivers, a 58-year-old NBA lifer, told ESPN. “Because usually team meetings are about either an attitude problem, a players-not-getting-along-with-the-coach problem or your-team-sucks problem. And this had nothing to do with any of those things.
“This had to do with life. And it was really cool.”
The Clippers, a star-laden group assembled to win now, have spent all season searching for chemistry. But it took an unprecedented pandemic to bring this team closer.
They’ve worked out together during the shutdown, had difficult talks about the nationwide racial unrest, kept one another level during isolation in the bubble, helped a star teammate out of a “dark place” and consoled one another through heartbreak and positive coronavirus tests.
But that night, when they were all together airing their thoughts and bonding, might be what the Clippers look back upon as “their moment” if they’re able to climb to what would be new ground for the franchise — the conference finals and possibly NBA Finals.
“It taught me a lot,” Rivers said. “It told me that we were really a close team because we were showing vulnerabilities to each other about where we are mentally.”
IN JANUARY, the Clippers were mired in a see-saw 13-game stretch, going 7-6. They were struggling to mesh last year’s band of overachieving and gritty veterans with two new stars in Leonard and George, who were slowly working their way back from injuries.
Leonard, the two-time NBA Finals MVP, sensed the team needed to be sharper. Months removed from leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship, the quietest superstar in the league called three players-only film sessions.
“Patrick Ewing was a little like that,” Rivers, who played alongside the New York Knicks‘ legend from 1992 to 1995, said of the reserved Leonard. “They both are very similar in the fact that they work their butts off, and when they do talk, it’s about doing the right stuff, running the right play, executing. Kawhi is very demanding and particular in that, and so when he talks, it carries weight because he doesn’t talk a lot.”
As with his midrange game, Leonard picks and chooses to speak with surgical precision, and he’s efficient when he decides to use his voice.
“Everybody knows Kawhi is a man of few words,” George said. “But when he speaks, it’s coming from a great place and he’s going to get his point across.”
That even-keeled nature and tireless work ethic is why George and guard Patrick Beverley sought out Leonard during the NBA shutdown to learn from him and continue to forge a connection.
“[George] … wanted to make sure to be on the same page, especially how well he felt him and Kawhi were playing,” Clippers point guard Reggie Jackson, George’s longtime friend, told ESPN. “Paul was always saying to me how he felt like they needed to stay in touch.”
With George living outside of Los Angeles and Leonard near San Diego, the Clippers’ two stars traveled up and down Interstate 5 to work out a few times during the hiatus.
“I visited him, he visited me,” George said. “For us, it’s just more and more being together, learning each other, figuring each other out. The more we’re together, the more and the better the chemistry gets.”
Leonard and George have plenty in common from growing up outside of Los Angeles to going from mid-major college prospects to lottery talents who started their pro careers in small markets. But after teaming up last summer, the duo needed time to bond on and off the floor.
“Just getting to know one another,” Leonard said of the workouts during the pandemic. “To just build a long way from there, just getting comfortable with talking with someone.”
For Beverley, as the days of isolation turned into weeks and then months, he plotted a pandemic course on how “we can catch some other guard that statistically is better” and close the gap between himself and elite guards.
“I called K,” Beverley told ESPN.
What was supposed to be a weeklong visit with Leonard turned into a three-and-a-half-week bootcamp. For three to four hours per day, Beverley — whose reputation is built on hustle and hard work — was blown away by the robotic repetition Leonard put into every drill and the smallest of details.
“We speak the same language,” he said of Leonard.
At a gym in San Diego, two of the best defensive players in the NBA fine-tuned their offensive games, focusing on rhythm dribbles, what moves to go to and which plays to call when an opposing big switches defensively.
“That part helped change my life, that helped me get confidence and bring it into my offense,” Beverley said. “I was fortunate to become a better basketball player during this quarantine, shooting the ball and handling the ball. I just feel extra confident.”
HOURS AFTER THE Clippers first entered the bubble in July, players were bouncing off the walls of their hotel rooms, unable to see anyone in person during mandatory quarantine. At 2 a.m., the players’ group text chat buzzed.
“‘Yoooo! Yoooo!'” Beverley texted the group, according to Jackson.
Then the point guard shouted the same message through the walls of his hotel room, echoing down the hallway: “Yoooo!”
The restless Beverley was checking in, taking a roll call.
“Everybody opened their doors saying what’s up [and] looked at each other,” Jackson recalled, as the players were careful to stay socially distanced and not break NBA quarantine protocol.
“That made, I guess, the first part of the 24 hours of lockdown even better. Just knowing that your teammates were there with you.”
The bubble, though, has been the most relentless obstacle the Clippers have faced all season. Even the typically emotionless Leonard has admitted how challenging bubble life was before loved ones were allowed in. Despite the fact that players prepared as best they could — George packed an elaborate gaming system, Williams brought enough equipment to set up a mini music studio — the NBA campus has been lonely, confining and isolating.
“None of this is easy, bro,” Williams said recently. “I’ll just be candid with you. This is an extremely different environment.”
Before their families arrived at the start of the second round, Clippers players learned to lean on one another when things got tough.
When Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet both tested positive for COVID-19 shortly before teams reported to the bubble and were stuck in Los Angeles, teammates checked in on them often by phone and the group chat. The team made sure their starting center and reserve guard stayed connected daily by having them Zoom into every practice and shootaround.
For Zubac, it was a continuation of the players’ communication throughout the hiatus.
“We [were] talking, like, all throughout when the NBA stopped,” Zubac said of the group chat. “We even talked more than we used to [before the pandemic]. I think we kind of grew closer. … While I was back home [in Los Angeles] and they were here in Orlando … they were checking in on us every day, all the players, all the coaches, the whole staff.”
And Clippers players didn’t let doors stop them from trying to help. Williams, Beverley and Montrezl Harrell each dealt with personal loss, all three separately exiting the bubble for funerals for loved ones. When each entered mandatory quarantine upon returning to the bubble, Clippers players repeatedly knocked on their hotel room doors and shouted messages of encouragement.
Harrell’s phone never stopped ringing for the two weeks he went to attend to his grandmother. It never stopped buzzing after he announced her death on July 31, nor for the seven days he was back in quarantine after grieving for the woman he considered his best friend.
“It wasn’t just one of those, ‘Hey, sorry for your loss,'” Harrell said. “No. Every person on the team really wrote a message to me, what they reflected on, instances of something they had to deal with in this matter in life, just words that would help me be able to get through this time.
“They actually expressed their feelings to help me.”
THE NIGHT OF the Bucks’ Game 5 protest, Rivers was learning new things about his own players. He won’t divulge exactly what his players said in their team meeting, but he listened and helped stabilize his frayed group. Rivers told his players “to continue this fight” for change against systemic racism by also continuing to play and using their platform that will grow the further they go in the bubble.
“Doc’s presence here, from being a successful Black man, he’s our coach but he gives like a father-figure presence, as well,” George said.
It’s the non-basketball conversations that have resonated so loudly in recent weeks and months. Slumping in the first round, George shared he was in a “dark place” and dealt with anxiety and depression after Game 5 of the first round. Just two nights prior, after the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic nailed a winning 3 against the Clippers, Rivers and George spoke on things “not all about basketball, really.”
George needed it, admitting his on-court issues were fueled by his inability to escape the bubble.
“I was talking to Jerry West. … He was like, ‘It’s not like you have an off button [in the bubble],'” Rivers said recently of a conversation he had with the Clippers’ Hall of Fame consultant. “The regular season, when you go home … you get away from it. You spend time with your family and your kids or whatever.”
The Clippers started this season with camp in Hawaii and a sunset catamaran ride through Waikiki trying to get to know one another. Almost a year later, they’ve found each other inside a bubble.
“You can feel it on the court,” Shamet said. “We’ve grown camaraderie-wise.”
Rivers felt it on the eighth floor, too, in the middle of the night. His team had to have this experience to come together.
In letting everything pour out, they were able to move forward together as a team, on the cusp of the franchise’s first trip to the Western Conference finals.
“It was a very powerful moment,” Rivers said. “That if things go the way we hope, we will look back upon that hallway meeting as something that will be very pivotal.”