By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The bubble hasn’t burst.
And the finish line is in sight.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledges that he had doubts if this was even possible. So did many players. Racial injustice protests were happening around the country and coronavirus positivity rates were skyrocketing in Florida when the NBA moved into Walt Disney World — the league calls it a campus, everyone else calls it a bubble — three months ago. It wasn’t a stretch to think it was only a matter of time before trouble started.
Never happened. The NBA got the games in and kept the virus out. Players managed to find a balance between what they felt were their basketball obligations and social responsibilities.
This season, a year that was longer than a year and difficult in almost every imaginable way, is nearing an end; the Los Angeles Lakers have a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals over the Miami Heat, with a potential title-clincher in Game 5 coming Friday night.
“The job’s not done,” Lakers forward LeBron James said.
He’s right, on many levels. The NBA came here to crown a champion; that hasn’t happened yet. Players came here to use their platform to fight for racial inequality and against voter suppression; those efforts continue. And the coronavirus pandemic rages on; with no end in sight there, either.
Outside the bubble, problems reign.
Inside the bubble, things are not perfect. It has not been easy. Often, it was not fun.
But it worked.
“I wanted everybody to have perspective on how difficult this is, how extraordinary of an experience all of this is,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “Being part of this bubble, being here for 80-plus days, surviving all of it and earning the right to compete for an NBA title.”
When the Lakers got to Lake Buena Vista, there were 22 teams in the bubble — more than 1,300 people in all, teams living in three different hotels, crossing paths at times. Social distance guidelines and protocols are followed and people are tested daily.
Though there is no retreating to familiar surroundings to escape setbacks, failures on the court or to go recharge their batteries, players are able to talk about their top priority: social justice. They talk about affecting change. White players talk about why it matters; Black players do the same, some at every opportunity.
Only two teams remain, and they’re still talking about the same things. Heat All-Star Bam Adebayo ends every media session the same way: “Black Lives Matter, people.” He says it because he believes America still needs that reminder.
“What’s important to our players is important to us, but it wasn’t just our players,” Silver said. “The players know, and the NBA community knows, there is a long history in this league of fighting for social justice, for racial equality. And it seemed appropriate.”
They put Black Lives Matter on the courts. They put it on jerseys. When players felt the message wasn’t getting through, they shut down play — stopping for three days during the playoffs. Some players were willing to go home to make the ultimate statement. Things nearly came apart in a three-hour meeting.
“I will go to my grave not forgetting a single second of that meeting with the players,” National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said. “Watching them and their passion, not simply ‘here’s an excuse to go home because no one was loving the bubble,’ but their passion and desire to talk about whether or not they were doing the right thing, how they could do something. They wanted to roar and they wanted to know if they were roaring from the right mountain.”
They feel they have made some progress. Key word: some. Most of the league’s eligible players are now registered to vote; that was far from being the case three months ago. More than half of the league’s arenas are going to be voting sites or were involved in the process through registration drives.
“For many of these players, this is the most amount of time that they’ve ever not played organized basketball,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said as the season was restarting. “Then to come back into camp, to play in this environment that no one has ever done before, and then to go out, play with no fans, live fans, in the arena, the champion will be a true champion because they will have had to overcome so much adversity to get to that finish line.”
Still, many unknowns remain.
The coronavirus led to a 4 1/2-month hiatus and disrupted this season, cost the league and its players hundreds of millions of dollars and cost plenty who work in and around the NBA jobs. Make no mistake, there will be fingerprints of the virus on next season in countless ways as well.
The demand-for-change messaging will continue next season, whenever it starts and wherever it happens. The league wants to be in arenas again, with fans, though nobody knows if that’ll happen. Another bubble remains a possibility in some shape or form.
But for now, laud this NBA bubble before it closes. It did its job. It saved the season.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org