By Dan Woike/Los Angeles Times
The Magic walked into a carpeted hotel ballroom Thursday in Orlando, Fla., outfitted with two NBA courts and four baskets, and made a little news.
Even though they never played 5-on-5, even though never did any drills that required contact and even though they didn’t travel far to get there, the Magic became the first NBA team to hold an actual practice since the league shut down March 11 because of the global coronavirus outbreak.
“Honestly,” Orlando forward Aaron Gordon said, “it feels strange.”
After months of writing and revising plans and negotiating with the league’s players (and then doing it over and over again), the NBA’s ambitious bubble concept began in earnest, with Orlando, Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix holding practices.
To get to this point, those teams had to clear quarantine in Orlando — approximately 36 hours — by passing a pair of coronavirus tests, including one submitted almost immediately upon arrival.
The Clippers arrived in Orlando without Kawhi Leonard and Landry Shamet on Wednesday night. The Lakers departed Los Angeles on Thursday and practice for the first time at Disney World today.
They might not return until mid-October.
“Just left the crib to head to the bubble,” LeBron James tweeted. “ … felt like I’m headed to do a bid man!”
Center Dwight Howard is set to meet the Lakers in Orlando on Thursday night. Guard Avery Bradley opted out of the restart and assistant coach Lionel Hollins won’t attend because of health concerns.
Clippers center Montrezl Harrell is one of a handful of players who have taken to social media to complain about the food served while in quarantine. And Lakers guard Rajon Rondo posted a photo of a room at the Gran Destino, where the Lakers and Clippers are staying, and compared it to a Motel 6. Magic big man Nikola Vucevic, who is inside the bubble away from his son and pregnant wife, said the conditions are better than some social media posts make them out to be. For a player who has spent time in Wi-Fi-less rooms with the Montenegro men’s national team, it’s all relative.
“I’ve seen guys complaining about the food and everything,” Vucevic said. “We just got here. It wasn’t that bad. It was fine. It’s not what we’re used to eating at home, sure. But you also have to consider they’re making food for over 1,000 people. It’s not easy to do that.”
Perspective is understandably hard to come by in a situation that’s unlike anything most NBA players have ever gone through — potentially more than three months away from home, with the possibility of family joining Aug. 30. “It’s a surreal feeling. I woke up this morning and I was in Utah. I didn’t know where I was at,” Jazz guard Mike Conley said. “It’s going to take an adjustment period. For us, we’ve got to kind of think of it as a summer house that we’re going to be working out in. We’re going to be away from people for a little bit. It is unique because we’re going to be in the same place for so long and around the same people in this bubble-type atmosphere. But it’s new for everybody.”
That’s not to say early concerns weren’t heard. Once players clear quarantine, they have access to in-room dining, hotel restaurants and some pre-approved off-campus delivery.
Player comfort might be the second-biggest concern for teams, obviously behind safety. And some have already indeed made themselves comfortable: Clippers guard Lou Williams set up a space to record music in his room. Teammate Patrick Beverley brought gaming systems and even some calming sage to burn.
And as teams had to trim their travelling parties to 35 (in some cases cutting from 70-plus), emphasis was placed on staffers who have direct impact on players’ lives, both physically and mentally.
“The value, first and foremost, was player health and wellness,” Milwaukee Bucks general manager Jon Horst said. “Everything we decided on was to try and make sure the guys perform at the highest level, that they’re taken care of, from soft tissue work, to physical therapy work, to nutrition, to their routines and their vitamins for their basketball reps and coaching. Player health and wellness drove every decision in terms of who went to the group.”
Teams loaded up trucks to get players as much as possible, whether it was an extra weight room like the Jazz sent to Florida or the photos off the wall of the practice facility, something the Bucks are bringing.
“I don’t know if there are 21 other teams that are doing this or not, but some of the details we’ve put into … . we have photos everywhere,” Horst said. “We have really intentional, specific photos of our guys in different actions and different things. We have different sayings, different niceties that they’re used to — all the things that matter to our players in an operation — we’ve tried to replicate and take with us put there.”
On the floor, teams are taking different approaches to the reboot. The Jazz opened practice with live action, Conley said. The Magic won’t even start playing 3-on-3 until the second practice.
“We’re going to build it up,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about this. I think we have a good plan.”
The NBA thinks it has a good one too, one that gives the NBA its best chance possible to finish its season in a wildly unique way.
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