The True Cost of Life in the N.B.A. Bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It all sounded so breezy when the Los Angeles Clippers’ Patrick Beverley arrived at Walt Disney World and promptly scoffed at the idea that working and living at one of the foremost playgrounds on Earth could somehow be complicated.

The bubble, Beverley unforgettably declared that day, is what you make it.

Nearly two months later, no one on the N.B.A.’s Disney campus can be that cavalier when talking about the surroundings. The league has managed to keep the coronavirus out, which undeniably is a significant achievement, but not without levying an emotional tax by severely restricting access.

Beverley’s first-glance view suggested that bubble inhabitants, with the right mind-set, could make this all seem as magical as a typical Disney trip. Now consider the review that the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James offered up Saturday night — after the league emerged from a three-day walkout during which numerous players gave serious thought to closing down the bubble completely. The near shutdown wasn’t motivated solely by the players’ social justice pursuits; also factoring in was the simple desire to return to the outside world.

“I’ve had numerous nights and days of thinking about leaving the bubble,” James said. “I think everyone has, including you guys.”

James was referring to members of the news media and, without question, he was right. The word I have used to describe this assignment, over and over, is “unmissable.” That sentiment remains true, because I’m not sure I’ll ever have the chance again to cover N.B.A. playoff games in August and September in arenas without fans. But “interminable” also applies. I can’t deny that there have been times during my 53 days here that I tried to picture the finish line and couldn’t.

It’s not because of the workload. My role at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, leading ESPN’s coverage of the U.S. men’s basketball team for “SportsCenter” and ESPN.com, made for even longer days in some ways. What gets to you in the bubble is your lack of control, combined with the long-term isolation, all exacerbated by copious regulations and restrictions.

So many rules to follow. So much time alone with your thoughts. An Olympic excursion, typically bucket list territory for most sportswriters, also lasts only three or four weeks.

Of course, nearly eight weeks into my stay in the 314-square-foot Casita No. 4151 at the Coronado Springs Resort, I am getting nostalgic and predictably sappy about it all — even the tough stuff. My time in the N.B.A. bubble is almost up. On Thursday, I am scheduled to fly home to Dallas. My colleague Scott Cacciola has begun his seven-day quarantine, replete with its daily throat and nostril swabs and bagged food drop-offs, and is poised to replace me as the bubble representative for The New York Times.

A few of my pals from other outlets are scheduled to cover this N.B.A. restart from the first dribble to the last, so I feel guilty that I am leaving while they have 40 days to go, as do the two teams that will ultimately reach the N.B.A. finals. I am also trying, without much success because I am so darn stubborn, to convince myself that 50-plus days in one place with no license to leave is not an insufficient commitment.

Some proof: I have been a Disney resident long enough to start seeing Facebook notifications urging me to “register now in Florida” because “your vote can make a difference in your community.”

I am obviously not eligible to vote in Orange County, Fla., but there are aspects of bubble life that will stay with me for a long time.

Wednesday, for starters, will bring the last of my daily coronavirus tests, but I suspect I will want to keep taking my temperature and oxygen saturation readings every day for a while — just to be safe.

I will miss living in a first-of-its-kind N.B.A. village with a bunch of teams that aren’t traveling and, because of the tightly controlled borders, can’t avoid interactions with the media even though there are so many more barriers to reporting access than we’re used to.

I will miss the solitary convention center hallway, connected to one of the three team hotels, that the news media could not be barred from — and all the chance encounters with key N.B.A. figures that took place there.

I will miss the garish orange carpet in that hallway and how Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix and I frequently laughed at each other for spending more time camped out there than we knew we were supposed to.

I will miss the tiny lizards scampering around our feet while walking the less-than-one-square-mile of the Coronado grounds allotted to reporters.

Credit…Marc Stein for The New York Times

I will miss the daily downpours that amazingly made Central Florida’s vaunted humidity easier to stomach than what awaits me upon my return to North Texas.

I will miss the limited food options that helped me lose 10 to 12 pounds, which history says I will quickly find upon returning home.

I will miss the delicate touches of the housekeeping staff, like the way they wrapped the remote control in my casita in a little plastic bag.

I will miss the serendipity, such as turning a corner on the way to the meal room and seeing, say, Denver Nuggets C

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