With daily testing, 2-square miles and an unconventional end to the 2019-2020 season, the NBA Bubble is one of the first major ways sports adjusted during the pandemic.
In July, the Memphis Grizzlies and 21 other teams gathered in Orlando, Florida, to finish the NBA season that was postponed in mid-March following positive COVID-19 tests from players.
Anthony Tolliver, Memphis Grizzlies small forward and a former Creighton player who graduated in 2007, was one of three former Bluejays to play in the bubble.
Prior to the postponement, there were rumors of what may happen to sports. There was a possibility of no longer playing with fans and so on, but to many, the idea of stopping altogether carried with it shock outside of the sport.
“My initial thoughts really had nothing to do with basketball,” Tolliver said.
At the time, it was unknown the implications the virus would soon have on the world.
“I knew if they were canceling basketball, this was a lot bigger and a lot worse than I originally thought,” Tolliver said. “I just started thinking about my family and making sure they were safe.”
This week, more than five months after the announcement, the NBA finals began in Orlando. Those in the bubble will soon return home for the first time since July, and it will be the end of a three-month period of a challenging and unique approach to carrying out a professional season.
One clear implication of the limit on people was an absence of fans and an absence of interaction with the crowd that players quickly noticed.
“Missing the fans was probably the biggest adjustment. Not having live interaction with people was huge,” Tolliver said. “It was a huge difference in the way the flow of the game can even go. Making a big play when you’re in an empty gym, it’s still a big play, but you don’t feel it.”
People behind the scenes worked to recreate the noise and crowd aspect for athletes.
Michael Hankowsky is one of those people.
As part of the game presentation group hired by Fuse Technical Group to work with the NBA in the bubble, Hankowsky and his four-person team spent the last three months handling the scoreboard, virtual fans and other elements for the in-game content.
Just like Tolliver and other players adjusted, Hankowsky said the bubble and the sports world in general differed from his normal expertise.
To some extent, he said, those other events are scripted and can be planned ahead.
“With sports, there’s no planning ahead. You have to react to what the players are doing. That was a big change,” Hankowsky said.
But the bubble wasn’t all adjustments, testing and changes.
On either side of the role, there were activities and new experiences outside of the competitions.
Tolliver, took the opportunity to meet up with other former Bluejays — Indiana Pacers small forward Doug McDermott (‘14) and Milwaukee Bucks small forward Kyle Korver (‘03) — for a “Creighton dinner.”
“Just stuff that we would never really do under normal circumstances ‘cause [sic] we’re not normally in the same place,” Tolliver said. “There were definitely positives to it in that regard.”
Meet-ups like that bring a sense of togetherness as the bubble isolates itself from the rest of the country.
Hankowsky notices it as well as he wraps up his own stay soon.
“It’s been great. Functionally, they threw a whole bunch of people in together, and we didn’t really know a lot of who we were gonna work with,” Hankowsky said. “It’s definitely evolved from a whole bunch of people working together, getting to know each other, to a pretty great community.”
Although it was a challenge, Tolliver and Hankowsky both recognize the project the NBA pulled off, and while plans for the upcoming NBA season are currently unconfirmed, Tolliver says he believes and hopes fans will be back in the stands when this season starts a little later than normal this year.