In sports, a particular season is often referred to as a year, even if it only lasts a few months. In baseball, for example, the 2020 season was only ten weeks, although its the only season that's played in a calendar year. For the National Basketball Association, though, the 2019-20 season was truly a year, and actually even longer. The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Miami Heat 106-93 Sunday night to win the NBA championship, 355 days after their regular season officially got underway.
In fact, one year ago today, training camps had already opened and the Lakers played their third preseason game. What would await the league, and the team, in the weeks and months to come, no one could have ever imagined in a year that has now been well documented.
On October 22, 2019, words like 'quarantine' and 'bubble' had no meaning in sports. The Lakers opened the season with a 122-112 loss to the rival Clippers, but would then win 22 of their next 24 games. A four-game losing streak followed, including a Christmas Day loss to the Clippers and even Laker fans, whose team had the best record in the league, feared the purple-and-gold wasn't even the best team in the city.
The turning of the calendar from 2019 to 2020 greeted the sport with sad news. Former Commissioner David Stern, who really took the league to the mega-sport it is today, died. Just three-and-a-half weeks later, the Lakers, fans, and the sport were shocked to learn that one of the legends of the sport, Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and several others, perished in a helicopter crash. There was no need yet for social distancing when a crowd packed Staples Center for a memorial service. All of that seems a long time ago, but was still part of the NBA's 'year'.
On March 12, the entire sports world stopped after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for coronavirus. Play didn't resume until July, but during that time, a black man in Minnesota named George Floyd died under the knee of a white police officer, awakening the call for social justice. When NBA players, most of them African-American, did return, they wanted to express their concern and outrage. The league allowed it, and encouraged it, with the words 'Black Lives Matter' displayed prominently, even on the basketball court itself.
All of these events, outlined above, all happened before play resumed in July, and 22 teams entered what has been called a bubble. Play would be restricted to the Disney sports complex in Orlando, players would be tested daily, and would have to stay in a hotel complex on campus, and, for the most part, would have to stay in their rooms, by themselves, when not playing or practicing. Admittedly we're not exactly talking about the Econo Lodge here, but even for twenty-something year-old multi-millionaires, there was a certain level of sacrifice.
Championships are sweet. We watch because we like to celebrate along with the athletes, but also because we admire their hard work, dedication, drive, and perseverance. Even in a so-called regular year, there's a laundry list of achievements that can be attributed to the hoisting of the trophy. It's still asking too much, probably, to feel sympathy for young adults with lots of money to have to hole themselves up in five-star hotels for a few weeks so they can play basketball virus-free, but the extra effort deserves to be recognized, not only by LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and about a dozen other Lakers, but for the Miami Heat and the other teams that not only realized that the extra steps were going to have to be taken, but to accept it and adapt, with very little complaining.
In retrospect, and even with a little circumspect, maybe that bubble isn't such a bad place. Lakers owner Jeannie Buss told the team, and a national television audience, that there would be an appropriate celebration of the championship “when it was safe”. Outside the bubble, people are still getting sick, large gatherings are still prohibited, and many businesses are still closed. In NBA World in Florida, there was not one positive test for Covid-19.
If you consider 22 teams in the bubble with each one bringing 30 people (a compete guess), that's a village of 660 people living virus free. As teams were eliminated, players, coaches, and staffers left, meaning fewer people inside. It's proof, though, even with a small sample, that social distancing works. Too bad more bubbles couldn't be created for the general public.
Even if you just confine this to the sports world, you can see that the NBA did a good job. Hockey had two bubbles in Canada for the conclusion of its interrupted season and it worked well. Outdoor sports like baseball and football can't really use a bubble for a regular season, but baseball has adopted it for the playoffs (the American League games are in California and the National League in Texas). Football is seeing positive tests now, and postponements of games for the first time.
It can be said again at month's end with the World Series, but despite a shortened schedule and an abbreviated season, the Los Angeles Lakers are indeed champions. Remember just a few short months ago, there were no sports of any kind. The motivation of the players was not to provide us with entertainment, but we thank them for it. We also need to pause, if only for a minute, to recognize what they had to go through to do it.
Home court 'advantage': There were no cardboard cutouts inside the NBA bubble, but the designated 'home' team for a playoff game got a video montage of fans cheering for them (even shots of Jack Nicholson rooting on the Lakers). They also had their logo on the court, and even chants like 'Let's Go Lakers' when LA had the ball, and 'Dee-fense' when they didn't. When Miami was the home team, they got the same treatment. It's somewhat ridiculous in the grand scheme of things, but also kinda cool.
Better not to talk about it: During NBA telecasts, they usually interview the road team coach between the first and second quarters, and the home team coach between the third and fourth periods. Sunday's game was a blowout, and with the Lakers leading by 28 after three, there was no interview with the Miami coach. We don't know exactly why, but probably a good idea.
We interrupt this program...: They knew this was a likely scenario, which makes it all the more insane. On Wednesday, the A's-Astros playoff game on TBS was running long, so coverage of the beginning of the Yankees-Rays game began on TNT. However, on the West Coast, TNT was showing the movie Godzilla. Right in the middle of the movie, they jump to about 15 minutes of a baseball game. Can you imagine watching the movie (the 2014 version) for the first time, or having DVR'ed it? At least when they had to do the same thing the next day, they just pre-empted a rerun of Bones.