An excellent account of life in the NBA bubble
A captivating account of the NBA’s strangest season ever, from shutdown to championship, from a prominent national basketball writer living inside the bubble
When NBA player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 in March 2020, the league shut down immediately, bringing a shocking, sudden pause to the season. As the pandemic raged, it looked as if it might be the first year in league history with no champion. But four months later, after meticulous planning, twenty-two teams resumed play in a “bubble” at Disney World-a restricted, single-site locale cut off from the outside world.
Due to health concerns, the league invited only a handful of reporters, who were required to sacrifice medical privacy, live in a hotel room for more than three months, and submit to daily coronavirus testing in hopes of keeping the bubble from bursting. In exchange for the constant monitoring and restricted movement, they were allowed into a basketball fan’s dream, with a courtside seat at dozens of games in nearly empty arenas.
Ben Golliver, the national NBA writer for the The Washington Post, was one of those allowed access. Bubbleball is his account of the season and life inside, telling the story of how basketball bounced back from its shutdown, how players staged headline-grabbing social justice protests, and how Lakers star LeBron James chased his fourth ring in unconventional and unforgettable circumstances. Based on months of reporting in the exclusive, confined environment, this is an entertaining record of an extraordinary season.
“March 11, 2020, the day that the balls stopped bouncing.” After Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the 2019-20 NBA season was brought to an abrupt end. For the billion dollar business/league, this led to a frantic period of planning and strategizing to find a way to safely save the season. I love watching and playing basketball, but I would be lying if I said the paused season was at the forefront of my mind in the early days of the pandemic. For Ben Golliver, however, the abrupt end to the NBA season was potentially life-changing: the Washington Post‘s NBA correspondent, it meant his job came to a screeching halt, too. As the NBA maneuvered to save the season, Golliver was approved to attend the whole Bubble-season in Florida. This is his engaging, well-written account of those three months.
In Bubbleball, Golliver first takes readers through the days before the Bubble, as the league and its players were navigating the various health, political, and personal challenges that they faced. The author doesn’t get too into the weeds of the negotiations (it’s not clear, but I don’t think much information was disseminated about specifics of these talks), but rather provides a well-crafted overview of what some were saying, and what decisions were ultimately arrived at, and the cases made for and against bringing the teams together to complete the season. Then, he moves into the story of the Bubble — from the quarantining, to the daily testing, the extensive surveillance and safety measures and protocols. Throughout his account, he quotes players and officials, who spoke with him about their own experiences in the Bubble. He also writes about the guilt he felt, given his daily testing and access to plenty of PPE, etc., while the rest of the country struggled to get what it needed: “COVID-19 tests were in short supply across the country, and the NBA was on the wrong side of the access crisis.”
The book is not only about basketball, however. Golliver does an excellent job of placing the NBA bubble in the context of the wider situation in the United States — not only the pandemic, which was a constant psychological presence while in Florida; but also ongoing social justice issues and protests that arose during 2019-20, and how these affected the players and organization. He provides plenty of details about the debates around how the players can, should, and would protest in support of ongoing social justice issues and debates happening outside of the bubble — and some of the players’ frustration at not being able to be out there, protesting alongside their neighbours, families, etc. There is also some mention of the clashes between the NBA and Republicans, around the comments regarding Hong Kong and China early in 2020, and also Trump’s verbal/Twitter attacks on the league for showing their support for social justice and other progressive issues.
When it comes to the games and playoffs, Golliver provides just the right amount of detail. Often, authors provide long, play-by-play accounts of pivotal games that seem to take almost as long as the games did to play. Golliver does not do this. Rather, he takes the far better approach of providing a more general overview of single games or, after the action enters the playoffs, each series. Key moments are described, and put into context. Each of the teams that made it to the playoffs gets some attention, and Golliver gives readers a nice, short overview of their road to the playoffs. Succinct, but not rushed, it was a nice reminder for me (having followed most of the season), but will also serve as a good catch-up for those who maybe didn’t follow certain teams. By keeping his reporting tight and focused, he avoids tripping up the story’s momentum, and kept it interesting.
It’s clear that Golliver is a West Coaster, and is interested in the LA basketball rivalry between the Lakers and the Clippers. LeBron James gets a lot of attention, which shouldn’t be surprising — he’s the biggest basketball star in the world, so of course he does. He’s quoted frequently throughout the book, on topics ranging from the shutdown, the pandemic, and also politics and his leadership role on social justice issues. The Lakers, too, get plenty of attention — not only because they ultimately won the season, but also due to the loss of Kobe Bryant early in the year. Golliver has plenty to say about the Clippers, now led by former-rapper and reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard — their performance suggested that “the Clippers thought more highly of themselves” than others did, and they ultimately
… lived down to every mocking stereotype that haunted them for years. Fragile. Splintered. Cursed. Chokers.
… They went out of their way to talk trash and play rough in the playoffs, and they fell on their faces. They were, in the end, all bark and no bite. Worst of all, they quit on each other during the toughest moments.
As a Raptors fan, I was pleased that Golliver wrote quite glowingly of the team, despite its obvious struggles in the Bubble: like many reporters and NBA fans, even if they don’t root for the Raptors to win over their own teams, everyone seems to accept that they are one of the most fun teams to watch — not only because of their style of play (endlessly evolving and unpredictable), but also because of the personalities involved. Nick Nurse, the “mischievous” coach “could be counted on to push buttons with his team now facing elimination” and keep opponents on their toes; Kyle Lowry, “delighting in his younger teammates’ successes” while also offering moments of braggadocio; OG Anunoby as the taciturn, silent-assassin shooter and defender. The team exhibited “the feistiness that the Sixers, Bucks, and Clippers lacked.”
The author writes about the mental health toll of the pandemic and specifically the Bubble. There are frequent mentions of players getting a tad stir-crazy, missing family, and struggling to stay engaged in the contest.
“I’ve had numerous nights and days thinking about leaving the bubble,” [LeBron] James said in late August, when the entire experiment nearly imploded amid tension and exhaustion. “I think everyone has, including you [media] guys. I don’t think there’s one person that hasn’t had a mind to say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’”
I could go on at much greater length about this book. I really enjoyed it, and I think Golliver has done a wonderful job of writing not only a great basketball book, but one that reveals and explains the wider context of the pandemic and American politics in 2020. Whether or not you followed the 2019-20 NBA season and stories from the Bubble, Bubbleball is an engaging, well-written and well-balanced account of a summer marked by COVID-19, politics, protest, and basketball. A must for basketball fans, and also recommended for anyone interested in reading a snapshot of a tumultuous time.
Ben Golliver’s Bubbleball is due to be published by Abrams Press in North America and in the UK, on May 4th, 2021.
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Review copy received via NetGalley