LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s been three weeks since I arrived on the Walt Disney World campus in preparation for the NBA restart. I was one of two media members allowed into the bubble two weeks before the rest of the media contingent and a week before teams arrived.
The league permitted early entrance to two of its broadcast partners: Turner and ESPN.
I’m a full-time Yahoo Sports employee, but I’m also one of TNT’s sideline reporters. In late June, Turner asked if I would be willing to go to the bubble early. I asked when, and the response was in a few days.
Suddenly, I’m making family arrangements and packing for a three-month period in a matter of two days. The plan was to get there early to quarantine in order to be cleared to report on air upon the teams arriving on campus.
Gone ’til October.
I was quarantined for seven days: three days at the Wyndham Grand at Bonnet Creek and the final four days at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in the Casitas area. The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics would eventually arrive at the same resort, staying at the Gran Destino Tower.
The first three days weren’t so restrictive.
I was shuttled to Disney’s Yacht Club Resort for daily COVID-19 testing and then immediately transported back. The test results were emailed within 12 hours. I had never been tested prior. Waiting for those results was scary. I would open up the email and brace myself each time. I always tested negative. The anxiety I experienced from getting that “Lab Results Available” email lasted for about the first four or five days until I was told that if I had tested positive, I wouldn’t be getting an email — I’d be getting a visit from a physician.
So then I knew when I saw the email, I was good.
There wasn’t room service at the Wyndham because of the threat of contracting the coronavirus, so I was allowed to venture out of my room and visit one of the two restaurants in the hotel.
I could take my food to go or dine in with proper social distancing. The fitness room was open with the protocol being only four to five individuals allowed at one time. After testing negative for three consecutive days, I was moved to my permanent lodging at Coronado Springs to finish out the remainder of my seven-day quarantine.
That’s when things tightened up.
The only time I was allowed to leave my room was to get tested. No exercise, no getting some fresh air, no nothing. The testing station is in the Gran Destino Tower. It’s about a five-minute walk. To get as much exercise as I could, I would sprint to get tested and sprint back. But on the final day of quarantine, I realized I was shortening the time I had to enjoy the outdoors. So I moseyed over on the last day.
The food delivered during quarantine was not to my liking. If you like all different forms of chicken, well, this was for you. I’ll leave it at that. But the three meals were always delivered on time and I was provided with ample amounts of water and snacks.
Quarantine is over
This is where the guinea-pig process began.
Here I am sharing the same hallways, restaurants, pathways, jogging trails, gift shops and testing center as the players and staff. I was told repeatedly before accepting the assignment that I was to refrain from interacting or engaging with players and staff outside of media-access windows.
Those were the rules, so I followed them.
The problem is, players know me and thus naturally would approach and engage in conversation. Awkwardly, I’m having a chat with LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell and others right in front of NBA personnel.
The league understands the relationship dynamic some media members have with certain players, so it didn’t hold those interactions against me. The way I looked at it was: If a player, coach or executive stopped me to chat, how am I in the wrong? Again, the league understood.
But over the course of the two weeks, restrictions were put in place out of the blue. A few areas we were allowed to frequent were abruptly off limits. Scenes we were told we could shoot were nixed. The goalposts kept moving and it became frustrating at times, but in fairness, I was a test case and the league was learning the lay of the land and trying to implement the safest health and privacy measures possible on the fly.
It was a cool experience to see the comings and goings of players throughout the resort, but it wasn’t ideal for me.
The teams were told that players and media would be separated, and the access I had around the entire resort conflicted with that agreement.
Furthermore, I was a little uncomfortable for them having to be in my presence. Being in the same venue with them — all the time, at all hours of the day — I didn’t want to come off like I was just a reporter looking for my next story. The players need their space to operate freely without fear of being watched.
The atmosphere is that of an AAU circuit, with teams walking in small groups from place to place, and some players hanging with those from other teams.
As Yahoo Sports’ Vince Goodwill proposed, the circumstances could allow the groundwork for the next NBA super team.
Occasionally, there are a few players strolling the bubble without masks, and social-distancing practices could be better.
The league has received violation complaints from a mix of players and staff on the anonymous tip hotline — dubbed the “snitch line.” The league has taken these matters seriously and teams have been warned to follow the safety protocols to better ensure the protection of everyone on campus.
Boundaries in place
The other media members cleared quarantine Sunday, but the league will now have boundaries put in place. The access I once had to roam freely across the resort is gone. Media members will now be confined to the residence space.
Testing will either be in hotel rooms or in a designated place in our area. The cafe and restaurants I shared with the teams are no more. Our three meals will be available at a location to be determined.
In fact, in order to get to practices in the convention center — which is a minute walk from our hotel — we now have to take a shuttle from the back of our premises that will unload us all in front of the convention center. This is to keep us from the route of the players and staff.
We do have a fitness center and a pool.
It was quite an experience the last three weeks. To paraphrase Aladdin, we're going to see a whole new bubble.
It was fun while it lasted.
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