- NBA players who entered the Disney “bubble” last week to resume the season expressed sadness to be leaving their families for two-plus months.
- Players cannot bring their families until after the first round of the playoffs, and after months at home, the goodbyes stung more than usual.
- Several players said they had to weigh their decisions with the financial rewards, the chance to use their platforms to spread messages about social justice, and the chance to compete again.
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When NBA players and their teams descended upon Orlando, Florida, last week to enter the league’s “bubble” in Disney World to resume the season, many were grappling with an emotional human element to the ordeal.
To get to this point, the league faced hurdles unlike any its ever seen: a pandemic, a player base dedicated to social justice reform, plus the logistics of how to build a “campus” to house over a thousand people and host NBA games. Players still hold concerns about all of those issues.
Yet, as players prepared for possibly three months in a hotel in a resort, for many the same issue kept coming up: leaving family.
“Just going in there for like a month or a month and a half before you see your family, that’s gonna be tough,” Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo told reporters earlier in July from Milwaukee.
Players have been home with their families longer than usual
During a normal season, NBA players are on the road constantly, playing 41 road games each season, embarking on trips that can be two weeks long, with multiple cities, hotels, and flights.
As Antetokounmpo noted, sometimes players bring their families on road trips. The bubble dwarfs those road trips.
The 22 teams resuming the season in Disney arrived from July 7-9. Games tip-off on July 30, with the eight regular-season games concluding on August 13. Families are not allowed to join until after the first round of the playoffs, which may be late August.
Once families are allowed inside, some will undoubtedly grapple with whether or not to bring them to Orlando. Once there, guests will go through COVID-19 testing and a short quarantine, per the league’s protocols, and at that point in the playoffs, they may not be staying long.
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum expressed a reluctance to leave his two-year-old son, acknowledging the fear of missing toddler developments.
“Just being away from my son for two or three months, that’s what’s really bothering me,” Tatum told reporters. “Knowing that he’s only two-and-a-half, and especially when they’re that young, their growth, they change every week, just knowing I’m going to miss out on that.”
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic said he felt relieved to know his parents would fly in to stay with his wife, who is pregnant and located just minutes away from the Disney resort. Vucevic won’t be able to leave the bubble, of course.
“I’m literally like 15 minutes away from our hotel. It is what it is,” Vucevic said. “Luckily, my parents were able to come in and they’re going to be able to help my wife with the kids. That’s gonna make my mind more at peace, knowing that she has help here.”
LeBron James and Damian Lillard both posted on social media about emotional goodbyes with their families, saying it felt like they were going away to do a “bid.”
—LeBron James (@KingJames) July 9, 2020
For many players, the season’s suspension offered a rare respite from the game and valuable time at home, making the goodbyes even harder.
“It gave me an opportunity to be home and make up a lot of time that I’ve lost over the years because I’ve been playing in this league and striving to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, to ever play this game,” James told reporters over the weekend. “So sacrificing my family at times was the most challenging and hardest part of it all.”
James’ comments echoed what Lakers veteran forward Jared Dudley told Insider in April, when the prospect of resuming the season looked far-fetched.
“When it’s all said and done, I look back on my life, I’ll definitely remember these times with my family, stuff that we did on a daily basis that I haven’t been able to do since playing basketball,” Dudley said.
Players return to reap the financial rewards, spread a message with their platforms, and scratch a competitive itch
Yet the NBA’s suspension for COVID-19 also put players into an unusual position: a period without basketball or competition.
Antetokounmpo told reporters that he hasn’t found a way to scratch his competitive itch without basketball, joking that his newborn son can’t compete with him in many tasks.
Tatum, while discussing the personal sacrifices needed to resume the season, added: “Obviously I miss playing basketball. I miss competing.”
Players across the NBA grappled with all of the competing issues of restarting — leaving their families, COVID-19 risks, the focus on social justice reform. Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets reportedly led a coalition of players who expressed concern with resuming the season in a bubble.
However, ultimately, only a handful of players opted out for reasons beyond injuries.
Nonetheless, many are still engaged in a tug-of-war of re-engaging their competitive sides with the realities of the situation.
“It was extremely hard to get motivated,” Magic forward Aaron Gordon told reporters. “Extremely hard. Especially with all the circumstances going on in America. All the different injustice, the pandemic, the health crisis. There was a lot of things that were preventing me from being motivated to get back on the court.
“But I’m here to tell you guys, I’m not here to do it for myself. That’s the only motivation that I have. I’m not here to do it for myself. I’m here to do it for my team. I’m here to do it for the Orlando Magic. I’m going to do it for my teammates. I’m here to win a championship. And I’m here to help the guys that haven’t signed contrats. I’m here for my brothers in the NBA who haven’t signed and are up for contract this year. I’m here for my family. I’m here for my friends. So I’m here for a lot of other people other than myself.”
As Gordon acknowledged, financial ramifications played a big part in players entering the bubble. Both players and teams wanted to recoup money lost this year, plus protect future earnings, especially with so much unknown down the line.
There exists a segment of the population who won’t pity the players, who will earn millions during their stay in Disney, with the league doing its best to both keep players safe and comfortable while away. Tatum said he is not looking for pity.
“I think we can make a stand, continue to raise awareness, and not let it not let the conversation die down. I think it’s going to be a part of history. So I think that’s a big reason why I decided to go.
“Like I said, I’m not thrilled, excited about it, because I’m going to be away from my son and my family for so long, but I’m old enough to make my own decisions and live with it. I don’t expect anybody to feel sorry for me.”