As the Lakers boarded their plane to Orlando on Thursday, the team was overcome with emotion. The prospect of leaving his family for months after getting to spend more time with them than ever at this time of year had LeBron James feeling like he was headed away to prison. Head coach Frank Vogel had a hard time giving his wife and daughters one last hug goodbye. JaVale McGee was more worried about leaving his girlfriend and daughter than he was about the risk of coronavirus.
The team plane didn’t help things feel much better. The players boarded the private jet wearing masks and with far more bags than they’d take on a normal road trip. They weren’t allowed to sit in their usual seats — due to social distancing guidelines — and were just close enough to see, but to far too have much interaction with the friends they’d been separated from close contact with for months. The absence of normal members of the traveling party, like Lakers assistant coach Lionel Hollins, surely only made things stranger.
Even upon disembarking in Orlando, the team was clearly separated by even more physical distance as they walked off the charter bus and into the Gran Destino Hotel. At Disney World, the players were briefed on what to expect as far as safety protocols, how they could connect to the Wi-Fi, and why they’d have to remain in their rooms for the first 36 hours of their stay. Overall, it wasn’t exactly an enjoyable welcome back.
By Saturday, though, things were finally starting to feel a bit more normal for the Lakers. The entire team — besides Danny Green and Dwight Howard, who were held up by a testing “glitch” and should be available on Sunday — got to get back together to hit the floor as a unit for the first time in months. Before practice even started, LeBron was already buzzing about the opportunity to be back in the gym with his friends.
“It’s like we never left. We picked up right where we left off,” James said, comparing the Lakers’ chemistry to when he was a teenager, playing on AAU teams that would only unite for a few months once a year, but instantly regain their camaraderie.
“I feel like we’ve been together for years even though this is our first year together,” James said. “I was just happy to see all my brothers and do what we love to do best, and that’s playing the game of basketball, and doing that for one another.
“(I’m) just happy to be back playing the game that I love.”
As the Lakers adjust to life in the bubble, it’s been made clear by social media that the players haven’t enjoyed every aspect of it. The team’s newest addition, shooting guard J.R. Smith, described it succinctly.
“This shit is ass,” Smith said in an unforgettable, day-one Instagram livestream.
Still, while it’s clear that not everyone is thrilled about the environment, James, Vogel and McGee all said before practice that they feel like it’s safe. McGee, who has asthma and spoke to the media through a mask even though he was being asked questions through a computer, admitted that catching coronavirus is a concern for him, but that the NBA’s protocols have put him at ease.
“I’ve had asthma, I could have quit (when it was diagnosed),” McGee said. But he hasn’t, so he’s not going to let it stop him now.
“I’ve been focused all year on one goal, and that’s winning an NBA championship,” McGee continued. “I feel like I’ve just got to keep going and that’s the best thing for me. Just to keep focusing on what I can control right now. And the NBA is taking a lot of precautions when it comes to COVID, and everything they’re doing is top-notch here, so I feel safe.”
James said he’s trying to evaluate the situation in the bubble as it goes, but has “no concerns” with the plan for one simple reason: NBA commissioner Adam Silver signed off on it.
“I believe in Adam Silver. He has given me no reason to not believe him since he took over, and I believe in our franchise, that we’re doing everything that we can to stay safe,” James said. “I’m here 100%, in great health, and I’m looking forward to getting back on the floor.”
This championship chase will be far from a normal one for the Lakers. As they went through practice that was clear, even if some things looked normal on the surface. Unmasked players shot jumpers together, and were all smiles as they went through the limited portions captured on video, clearly excited to be back together as a group.
But looking more closely, the signs that things are quite different than when the NBA shut down were on full display. Media availability sessions that used to feature reporters scratching, clawing and elbowing for airspace in a huddle just inches from players and coaches now featured James, McGee and Vogel talking to a TV monitor and camera in a hotel hallway. As Davis got treatment, Lakers trainer Jon Ishop wore a purple and gold bandana to keep from breathing on him.
McGee said he brought 10 bags, far more than a usual road trip, and it’s clear that all the preceding things are far from the only ways this playoff run will be different from any before it. But even amidst such limitations and with a limited traveling party, Vogel feels like the Lakers are well prepared.
“We’ve got enough to get the job done. We have the facilities we need. The NBA has done a great job of creating an environment that can house a lot of teams,” Vogel said. “We’ve got the courts necessary. We’ve got the weight rooms, training rooms, meeting rooms, hotel accommodations, and we have enough.”
James was one of the few Lakers to not talk about the strange circumstances of the bubble on his social media accounts yet this week, and he says he’s still “taking it all in.” That said, how the hotel is, and what building the Lakers are practicing in isn’t really his primary concern, either.
“For me I’m all about the process, and I’m here for one goal and one goal only, and that’s to win a championship,” James said. “My mindset is to do that on the floor, and my mindset off the floor is to continue to give education and continue to give guidance to my community and to communities around the world.
“That is my main focus. I’m here to do nothing else besides that: Play the game at a high level and bring a championship back to L.A.,” James said. “And continue to push the envelope on creating change for my people.”
James said that opportunity to use the NBA’s platform to advocate for causes he believes in is a big part of why he never considered sitting out of the restart.
“(It) never crossed my mind that we did not need to play this beautiful game of basketball that brings so many people together. That brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families,” James said. “This is all about sport, and I’m happy to be a part of one of the biggest sports in the world, and that’s the game of basketball. And I’m happy to have a platform where not only will people gain joy from the way I play the game and the way our team plays the game, but also for what I’m able to do off the floor as well.
“I will not stop until I see real change for us Black Americans, African-Americans, people of color,” James continued. “I can do both. I can bring happiness to a lot of homes with the way I play the game and the way the Lakers play the game, and I will continue to push the envelope and keep my foot on the gas on creating real change for us as people of color in America.”
James’ leadership in the community off the floor is something his coaches and teammate have made no secret that they admire, both during the season and while the NBA was on hiatus. His leadership of his teammates is less important from a societal perspective for obvious reasons, but Vogel still made sure to give his star some credit for how prepared their team stayed while the NBA season was stopped.
“Guys want to follow LeBron. His example is stronger than any words that he can say,” Vogel said.
Vogel theorized that James was also staying on his teammates to remain in shape during the stoppage, something that other members of the roster hinted at over the course of the hiatus as well. He said that level of conditioning isn’t going to stop him from ramping up gradually as the Lakers resume the season, but it will allow them to skip right into contact practices because their non-contact level is so high already.
“Watching our guys work out last week, we put them through some pretty rigorous 1-on-1 work, and guys seem to be in at least decent shape,” Vogel said. “They’ve been doing no-contact work for a few months, and we want to get their bodies used to that again, so we’re gonna get right after it.”
James was ready for whatever Vogel was going to throw at the team.
“I’m looking forward to getting on the floor with my teammates, and to us getting better,” James said.
How much better they can really get on day one is an open question, but amidst all the abnormal circumstances, the team just genuinely seemed ready for a slice of normalcy during a year without a lot of it.
“To see everybody in the gym at once is super exciting, and as soon as we get off this call we’ll be able to get to work, and I’m excited about that,” Vogel said.
Then he smiled, said goodbye, and ran off to go do just that.