Cornhole, basketball and guitar hero Steven Adams: How OKC Thunder spent its first 72 hours in the NBA bubble
Darius Bazley was matching Chris Paul shot for shot, but then the Thunder rookie made a mistake. Bazley started trash talking the future hall of famer.
“League sources say that Chris Paul is nervous,” Bazley said in a cartoonish voice through his mask.
But the game was far from over. Paul sealed the win and pointed to the grass, where Bazley had 20 push-ups to do. Yes, grass. A competitive cornhole match broke out at Disney World even before the Thunder reached the practice court. The scene was captured in a video released by the team.
The Victorian-style Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, marked by its red gabled roof and white wooden porches, was visible in the background. The Thunder checked into the 900-room hotel around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday after flying in from Oklahoma City.
It was their official entrance into the bubble.
NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer Mark Tatum greeted the Thunder at the hotel. There was a run-through of campus safety protocols, and every member of the Thunder’s 37-person travel party was tested for the coronavirus.
That was followed by a 36-hour quarantine. Everyone stayed in their rooms, and food was dropped outside their doors.
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“That was a little weird to be in the room without being able to go outside,” Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari said. “But all the measurements and the things that the NBA set up in order to keep us safe is amazing.”
Players have the option to wear Oura smart rings, which track COVID-19 symptoms. Everyone inside the bubble will regularly be tested for the coronavirus. Masks must be worn outside hotel rooms, except on the practice courts.
“It's incredibly strict,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Before you can walk into an area, you have to have a wristband that turns a certain color, you have to fill out things from a profile with your health of what your symptoms are, how you're feeling… The amount of detail that the league has had to go through to even get to this stage is really remarkable.”
Aside from cornhole, fishing, golf and other outdoor activities offered inside the bubble, much of a player’s time will be spent in his hotel room. The Thunder will be in Orlando at least through the end of August, when the first round of the playoffs conclude. The NBA champion and runner-up will live at Disney World through mid-October.
“Some guys brought some video games and stuff, but I think that the coolest thing was that Steve-O (Adams) brought his guitar,” Gallinari said, “which I knew he was playing guitar at home, but bring it to Orlando? I didn't know he was gonna do that.”
Gallinari, who also plays guitar, hinted at an upcoming duet.
“I’m piss poor at composing music,” Adams said. “I can play a few chords here and there just to keep me settled and entertained and whatnot.”
Adams packed more than his guitar.
“The missus made a couple batches of lasagna because I seen a photo of the food that they were giving us,” Adams said. “So just before we left I was like, ‘Please, two batches of lasagna.’”
Rookie guard Luguentz Dort packed his PlayStation 4, an iPad to watch movies and a couple books.
“For me, it’ll probably be just a lot of talking to the coaches, a lot of film, maybe some reading,” Donovan said of passing the time. “That will be about the extent of it.”
The Thunder travel party was tested again for COVID-19 Thursday and Friday before their in-room quarantine was lifted. The team boarded a bus Friday afternoon from the Grand Floridian to The Arena at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports — one of three venues where games will be held.
The Arena is seven miles south of the Thunder’s hotel. The 76ers, Grizzlies, Magic, Mavericks, Nets, Pacers and Rockets are also staying at the Grand Floridian.
The Thunder held its first practice at 4 p.m. Friday at one of two practice courts adjacent to the main floor at The Arena. It was the Thunder’s first practice since March, when the season was suspended. The Thunder practiced Saturday afternoon at the Visa Athletic Center, and it has another practice scheduled for Sunday night.
“The team group chats are always great, the team Zooms were great, but it's nothing like seeing each other,” Paul said Friday. “I said this and I truly believe it. We got a special team. We got a really special team and we genuinely love to be around each other. So today to get out on the court and hoop a little bit together was definitely a breath of fresh air.”
Paul, Gallinari, Adams, Dort and Donovan were made available Friday and Saturday for post-practice Zoom interviews with local media. All 16 Thunder players participated in practice. Teams were allowed to bring 17 players to Orlando, but rookie forward Isaiah Roby didn’t make the trip after undergoing a minor procedure on his right plantar fascia.
“I thought their conditioning was good,” Donovan said Friday. “I didn’t know what to expect. Obviously there's rust, there's timing, things like that have got to get better.”
Donovan said the team reviewed pick-and-roll coverage and went through a scripting period to brush up on their base offensive sets.
“I thought it was a really, really good first day,” Donovan said. “There was good energy. Obviously we know we got a long haul in front of us with the number of weeks to kind of prepare for this first game. But overall, I think if we continue to have the mentality that we had today, I think we'll get better and we'll improve.”
Paul, as president of the National Basketball Players Association, played a key role in bringing basketball back. He advocated for the 370 or so players who are in the bubble.
“Man, my impression is this is an unbelievable job,” Paul said after being in Orlando for 48 hours.
He credited the union, the teams, the NBA and Disney for coming together and finalizing a plan. But not all first impressions have been positive. Several players from other teams have complained about the food, as Adams noted, which promises to be better now that teams have cleared their quarantine periods.
“Even though there's a number of us throughout the league that worked on this, we didn't know what to expect either,” Paul said. “We keep telling the players … we don't always have the answers, but everything isn’t gonna be perfect. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
Paul and the Players Association, aside from finishing the season, want to use the restart in Orlando as a platform to promote social justice. Some players worried that the fight against systemic racism and police brutality would be overshadowed by a return to play — that games might distract from a nationwide movement.
“As nice as it is to be back on the court,” Paul said, “I don't think anyone on our team, or any of the players down here have lost sight of the cause, right?
“We're obviously here to play, but that's still our focus, to shed light on different things that we think needs a lot of work. I think the players will continue to come together, continue to talk, and understand that that's just as important as any game is.”