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Finding the Right Headspace for Three Months in a Basketball Bubble

Physical harm, whether it be injury or the coronavirus, is an unavoidable concern for the NBA’s restart, but mental health is also front and center for many involved. Players, coaches, and experts detail the unseen obstacles of being sequestered at Disney World, and what they’re doing to overcome them.

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Even through a laptop screen, Carmelo Anthony’s good mood is palpable. The Trail Blazers’ midseason addition is talking to reporters on a Zoom call, smiling and enthusiastically answering questions despite the fact he’s about to be isolated for 36 hours and then quarantined for one, two, maybe even three months inside the NBA’s Disney World bubble.

“This year has been a roller coaster,” Anthony said. He cites Kobe Bryant’s death in January, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact he was without a team for most of the season as challenges he’s had to face. But even though he was out of action for more than a year and a half, Anthony says it wasn’t lost time. “Being away from the game, I got an opportunity to build myself up from a mental standpoint.”

Anthony explains that his time away from basketball has allowed him to refocus and reestablish a routine, which includes setting aside a few hours a day to read a book or an article, listen to a podcast, and go for a walk to help clear his head. Not being part of a team was isolating, but instructive—and now Anthony feels like he has a steadier mindset going into an unprecedented situation in Orlando.

“I’ve been isolated for a year and a half,” Anthony said. “I know what that feeling is like because I isolated myself away from the game. That has prepared me for a situation like this.”

While Anthony was just getting back into a rhythm with the Blazers, the rest of the league was going at full speed, barreling toward the stretch run when the season was suspended in early March. What followed was a few months of uncertainty, broken routines, looming health concerns, as well as social unrest throughout the country. And as players tried to grapple with it all, they had to quickly spring back into action once the league announced it would return at the end of July.

In the lead-up to this restart, there’s been plenty of discussion about how teams need multiple weeks to practice in order to mitigate possible injuries. But the unique setup in Orlando—where players won’t be able to exit the campus for up to three months, save for an approved reason—could also have a dramatic impact on the mental health of those residing there.

“Their vulnerability index going in is very high,” William Parham, the National Basketball Players Association’s mental health and wellness director, said in a mid-June phone call. “I think they’ll come into this better prepared mentally, having navigated this coronavirus pandemic, and the stay-at-home orders. But even then, they’re going to need heightened readiness to really focus on their sport and what they love, but also focus on the reality of COVID-19, so they have a lot more to juggle.”

If there was ever a litmus test for how far the NBA has come in terms of prioritizing mental health, this Orlando restart is it. On the ground, the league seems to be providing ample resources, and players and coaches have said they believe the mental side of things is just as important as the physical. And yet, they’ve made it clear that no one knows what to expect. This setup is foreign for everyone—each person could respond to it differently.

“The way I perceive this and the way that a younger player in this league will perceive it will be totally different,” Anthony said. “This is going to be a stressful situation for everybody. Everybody’s gonna be tested mentally, everybody will be tested emotionally.”

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice
Carmelo Anthony
Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Seven minutes after the Sixers beat the Pistons on March 11, the NBA season was officially put on pause. That night was the last time Paddy Steinfort, a performance coach who has worked with MLB, NFL teams, and the Sixers in some capacity since 2018, saw his colleagues in person. His job typically requires face-to-face interaction, but he hasn’t stopped working. The Sixers went into self-quarantines for 15 days following the positive test of Pistons player Christian Wood that same week, and were stuck at home for months after as the coronavirus raged through the country, but Steinfort’s role actually increased in importance, even from afar.

“Mental health and well-being was a priority as everything became super unclear,” Steinfort said. The situation introduced what Steinfort calls “the Uns”—the unexplained, the unexpected, the unclear, and the undefined, all of which still linger as players settle into Orlando. “These guys have, since they’ve been teenagers, had their lives and their schedules dictated by basketball … we’ve now gone months without that structure.”

To try to alleviate that loss as well as reduce stress, Steinfort wanted to immediately shift players’ focus to things that were enjoyable. He and his staff put together files that included recommendations tailored to each player—MasterClasses they might like, book, podcast, and movie lists, and even parenting resources for those who were suddenly with their families at home. Steinfort also ran what he calls a “mind gym,” where he held small-group Zoom sessions that focused on mindfulness and meditation.

“Every single thing was optional,” Steinfort said. “In any given week guys could be at different stages of processing the disruption, so if they wanted to engage they could, while others may have needed a complete mental break.”

One of Steinfort’s main goals was maintaining connection between players and staff members while everyone was remote. His reasoning was twofold: First, he didn’t want a player slipping into “perceived loneliness” (which he notes is not about how alone a player objectively is, but rather how alone they feel compared to their typical day-to-day life). And second, if the NBA were to return, he knew that team culture was going to be even more important than usual. Chemistry has been a work in progress for the Sixers this season, especially between superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. While Steinfort can’t comment on how specific players responded to his efforts, many players around the league have said the time off helped improve their team chemistry.

“If we’re being honest, we didn’t have the best chemistry through the year,” Tobias Harris said after a practice in Orlando last week. “We have grown throughout the pandemic. It was a time to communicate and get to know each other a bit more.”

For a team like the Timberwolves, who aren’t going to Orlando, keeping guys engaged in team activities was particularly important. Timberwolves players had a trying spring, between the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the death of Karl-Anthony Towns’s mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, due to complications from COVID. President of basketball operations Gersson Rosas and his staff offered players everything from mentors, to group activities like lakeside workouts, to watching The Last Dance together, to a Zoom speaker series that featured the likes of author Bryan Stevenson, J.J. Watt, Bob Iger, and Robin Roberts.

Wizards and Mystics Juneteenth Peaceful Protest March
Members of the Wizards and Mystics protest in June
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

“It really brought our group together,” Rosas said. “It’s matured our guys. I’ve seen guys grow up before my eyes.”

Parham notes that the layoff led players to discover new things about themselves and further invest in their relationships with teammates. But it also gave each player a “portfolio of challenges” that they now have to deal with. Some players tested positive for coronavirus; others had family members affected. And for many players, the Floyd killing was a flashpoint moment that pushed them to speak out and protest against police brutality and racism. Guys like Lou Williams and Avery Bradley said they felt a responsibility to act, and Bradley ended up opting out of the restart.

“I think a lot of people don’t want to feel like they have to choose between playing basketball and continuing to engage in the activism and advocacy that they’re passionate about,” Dr. Kensa Gunter, a clinical and sport psychologist who works with the Atlanta Hawks, said. “Athletes are navigating and negotiating change all the time, but this level of change, and this many areas of life all at one time is what makes this particular moment a bit more intense.”

Ultimately, the NBPA voted to go to Orlando, and many players have since stated that they plan to use their platform to speak about social justice issues. But that spotlight brings with it another burden. In addition to playing well and staying healthy, players will now be grappling with another question: “To what degree and in what form will we use our celebrity to get out a message that is bigger than all of us?” Parham said. “It’s a balancing act they have to do.”

One of the first things Kyle Guy does every morning after waking up inside Disney World’s Yacht Club Resort is roll out a yoga mat. The practice, which the Kings guard began on the first day he arrived in Orlando last week, helps his body stretch out—but what it does for his mind is perhaps more important.

“I think a lot of people are going to probably enjoy this for the first two weeks,” Guy told me during his initial isolation period. “But then the next four weeks is really when people can start to unravel and really get tired of being here. So for me, my routine is what is going to give me normality.”

Guy’s routine isn’t the same everyday—teams have three-hour practice slots that shift times each day, and also shift from daytime to nighttime each week. But he’s keeping himself busy by playing Call of Duty, watching movies, reading books, and calling friends and family in between practices, meals, and other activities. He said he plans on golfing and meeting up with the other Virginia alums that are on the campus, some of whom he hasn’t seen in years.

“It’s a lot of alone time, maybe more than most people are used to,” Guy said. “The pressures of starting the season back up, basketball, Black Lives Matter movement, coronavirus, you know, there’s just a lot of factors going into this more than just basketball. So I think people can get lost in all the chaos.”

Mental health discourse and efforts have improved around the NBA the past few years. That’s in part due to how vocal players like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have been about their own experiences. Guy also has been transparent about his own struggles while in college. At the start of this season, the league created new mental health guidelines, which required every team to have a relationship with a mental health professional like Steinfort or Gunter. But the bubble presents an even bigger challenge, forcing teams to walk a fine line between establishing a routine and allowing flexibility amid an unprecedented setup.

Last week, Nuggets coach Mike Malone encouraged players to spend time outdoors by setting up a 30-minute pool workout on an off day. Lakers coach Frank Vogel said he and his staff won’t be regulating what players do outside of practice times, in order to give them space to adjust however they need to. As part of their efforts to provide players with things to do outside of basketball, the league has set up golf, fishing, and a player lounge with games. Every team may have a different approach, but it appears that most, if not all, are keenly aware that investing in the mental state of their players will only benefit the physical side.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice
Ja Morant
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

“There’s a mind-body connection that exists,” Gunter says. “And so if we find ourselves mentally exhausted or fatigued or holding on to a very heavy emotional load, that can come out in us feeling physically exhausted or fatigued or having muscle tension. So I do think that in terms of thinking about the overall health, it’s important to be attentive and to not just focus on their physical health.”

Steinfort is recommending meditation and yoga to players, and like most mental health professionals associated with teams, he plans to be available to provide assistance remotely. Inside the bubble, players, staff members, and coaches also have the ability to talk to an appointed mental health professional face-to-face or connect with an on-site clinician 24/7 through an NBA-created app. Parham says the NBPA is also prepared to field any inquiry from players inside the bubble, and he notes that over the past three months, the number of players reaching out in search of some assistance has increased.

“It’s something that coach [Mike D’Antoni] and I and our health and wellness staff are going to be monitoring,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey told me. “This is a long haul, and it’s in one place with not a lot of movement, so how that will tax guys mentally over time is something we need to constantly monitor.”

Steinfort also has been an adviser for the U.S. Army human performance group. While he acknowledges the differences between basketball and the military, he says that the concept of deployment is “as close as you can get to what these guys are about to experience,” in large part because they’ve had to leave their families at home.

Family has been a big topic of discussion in the first week or so of teams being in Orlando, especially as it relates to players’ mental health. When asked about leaving their respective homes, players have sighed and winced and admitted that that’s been one of the toughest parts. Teams are trying to help with this too: Raptors players got framed family photos on their desks, and the Heat put up pictures of players’ family members in the team room.

Others have relied on screen time. Vogel says he “has dinner” with his wife and two daughters over FaceTime. The Mavericks’ J.J. Barea said his FaceTime sessions with his family include a daily explanation to his daughter about what he’s doing. “She asks me, every time, ‘When are you coming home, daddy?’“ Barea said. “I gotta explain almost every day, ‘Daddy’s working, he’s playing basketball with his friends.’”

Leaving family behind would be tough under any circumstance, but DeRozan said earlier this month that spending almost every day with family for the past few months has made it even harder. “We haven’t been this close to our families in all our lives,” CJ McCollum said. “And now we’re in a position where we probably haven’t been away like this in all of our lives.”

Gunter notes that the presence of family, even if removed during the season, is part of players’ extrinsic motivation. “When you think about a typical basketball season, a part of the energy that the players get is derived from having those in their support system to be there, experiencing it with them,” Gunter said. “I think that desire to have family and support systems there is also a natural desire, because that too is a part of the familiarity of competing for them.”

In Orlando, though, there will be a strange paradox. If players “fail” at their jobs by getting eliminated, that would get them back to their families sooner. The league plans to allow families into the bubble once teams reach the second round of the playoffs, but only for players. Malone said last week that he hopes the NBA considers expanding that to coaches.

Most players on playoff teams, and especially those on title contenders, seem to have accepted the reality that they are in this for a while. It’s why everyone from Steinfort to Gunter to players themselves have emphasized that establishing a routine is paramount in order to stay focused. But just like safety within the bubble can’t ever be fully guaranteed, a routine doesn’t make players immune to how this environment may affect them mentally.

“It’s a lot of nerves [coming down here],” the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown said. “As we get more comfortable and get a routine, some of those nerves may go away. Some may not.”

Even as teams, front office members, and agents wrestle with the potential mental health pitfalls that could arise in Orlando, they are also quick to add another, more hopeful possibility: Basketball can help.

Players have smiled and used words like “joy” when describing the feeling of getting back on the court with their teammates for the first time in months. It’s evident that basketball is having a therapeutic effect.

“Nothing is normal,” LeBron James said Monday after Lakers practice. “But what is the same is the floor we just came off of.”

“I feel like this is what you miss, being away and quarantining,” Jrue Holiday said after one of the Pelicans’ first practices in Orlando. “For me, I love my family and I love seeing them, but when you come back into the locker room or just to come back and see the guys … that is something that you miss about the game.” Teams often like to repeat the cliché that their teammates are all they have, but now, as the Celtics’ Semi Ojeleye, put it, “It’s really coming true.”

“There’s a real excitement about reengaging, or rediscovering their roles, getting nourishment from locker rooms and just being around the guys,” Parham said. “My guess is they’re going to really get into playing ball, and that can provide an escape from other sources of worry.”

While the bubble presents unique challenges, Gunter, Parham, and Steinfort all pointed out that it also allows players to return to a version of their comfort zone. “I think the competition aspect will really help,” Rosas said of the teams at Disney World, adding that he would like the Timberwolves to get a similar opportunity before next season begins. Earlier this month, ESPN reported that the NBA is considering starting a second bubble in September for the eight teams that weren’t invited to Orlando. “You have high-level competitors in an environment that they miss and that is their sacred space, so I think that will give it some balance.”

It remains to be seen how losing and the pressure to win basketball games affects players in an environment designed entirely around playing basketball. But as Gunter says, these players have overcome challenges before. Their ability to adjust and adapt shouldn’t be ignored.

“Sometimes in the absence of knowing things, we have a tendency to fill in the blank with negative assumptions,” Gunter says. “But athletes are resilient. They don’t get to the level of being professional athletes without being resilient and knowing how to navigate adversity.”

When I posed that thought to Guy and asked whether he agreed, his answer was short and immediate.

“Hell yeah.”

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