When the term “NBA bubble” started being used to describe the semi-quarantined zone the league was building at the Disney World resort in Orlando, some within both the NBA and the media pushed back on the term. It wasn’t a true bubble, they pointed out, because the league’s grand experiment would still feature employees who were not being tested daily or living on the grounds.
Still, the term stuck, and in the end, now that the campus environment the league created has come to a screeching standstill, it’s proved its bubblehood once and for all.
Because that’s the thing about bubbles: They pop.
Today, the NBA’s finally did. It’s not clear if it can be put back together. The season appears to be on the verge of cancellation, and not because the multitude of precautions that went into keeping the scourge of COVID-19 out failed. That part of the plan will go down as a triumph for the league if the season ends today. There have been zero positive tests inside the bubble so far among people who made it through the quarantine process.
But no matter how many masks the league forced people to wear, or how much hand sanitizer it provided, it couldn’t wash away the viruses of systemic racism and police brutality that have infected this country since long before we knew what COVID-19 was. It wasn’t an ill-timed cough, but rather yet another instance of a Black person being shot by police on camera and in broad daylight that might be the needlepoint that bring the liquid walls of the bubble crashing down.
This time it was Jacob Blake a 29 year old Black man who was shot by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin over the weekend. The horrific video showed the officers shooting him seven times, in front of his children, as he attempted to enter his car.
Almost instantly, the aftershocks of those seven gunshots were felt in the bubble. Milwaukee Bucks guard George Hill told reporters “we shouldn’t have came to this damn place to be honest.” Clippers coach Doc Rivers — the son of a police officer — called for police unions “to be taken down” as part of a tearful speech in response to the video. Lakers star LeBron James couldn’t hide his grief and fear while speaking with the media after a playoff win.
“Quite frankly it’s just fucked up in our community,” James said. “We are scared as Black people in America right now. Black men, Black women, Black kids. We are terrified.”
Players quickly discussed stopping the season, both openly and behind closed doors. Then they actually did it, with the Milwaukee Bucks never leaving their locker room for their playoff game against the Orlando Magic. The Magic quickly returned to theirs in solidarity, refusing to accept the Bucks’ forfeit.
Not long after, word leaked that the Oklahoma City Thunder would also take part in the wildcat strike, as would the Houston Rockets. Soon, the Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers had agreed to do the same. The league put out a statement claiming it was postponing the games, but it’s not clear how feasible getting the players to play them will actually be.
NBA players and coaches in the bubble had a meeting on Wednesday night, and the Lakers and Clippers voted to stop the season. The league itself has scheduled a board of governors meeting for Thursday morning.
So if it ends today, or over the next few days, how will the NBA bubble be remembered? For one, history books will reflect that the league was once again a trendsetter on doing the right thing. But while it was the league office that made the (correct) call to halt the season after one positive coronavirus case, this time it was the players refusing to give people a distraction from the fight against systemic racism that is clearly a long way from over.
And even if it the NBA doesn’t crown a champion, the achievements the bubble helps spearhead may be much further reaching. It has helped set off similar protests in other pro sports that may snowball into real change if they wake people up, and on the coronavirus front, the league’s and players union’s efforts in Orlando helped pioneer a saliva-based coronavirus test that could make it far more affordable and feasible to turn the tide of this pandemic.
But make no mistake: there would be consequences to the season being halted, both near and far reaching. NBA ownership may tear up the collective bargaining agreement, and contracts around the league will likely be impacted. But we can discuss these and the many other impacts of all this at a later date, if and when they happen.
For now, the news that is in jeopardy will undoubtedly make everyone who loves this sport sad. But if that’s the thing we have to be most upset about today, then we should probably count ourselves lucky, think about the privilege that allows for that to be our biggest problem, and do what we can — with our votes, with our emails, with our phone calls and more — to fight the systemic racism that is hurting so many more people than just the players we love to watch, and has left them ultimately on the verge of stepping away.