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The NBA’s Carefully Constructed Alternate Universe

Basketball will resume within the NBA’s fabulously intricate, hyper-choreographed bubble, which has thus far kept players and personnel safe. Outside the bubble—across America—it’s a different story.

Ringer illustration

So here we are. The NBA, the only major sports league that kind of seemed like it existed inside a bubble at Disney World even before the pandemic broke out, is now officially the only major sports league that exists inside a bubble at Disney World. The league’s season resumes Thursday night; the Jazz-Pelicans game that leads off the restart will be the NBA’s first competitive contest since commissioner Adam Silver’s office suspended the season on March 11, a date that now feels like it fell in the early Pleistocene epoch, even though it was somehow, incredibly, less than 100,000 years ago.

In case you can’t remember that far back, the NBA’s decision to halt play after Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test was one of the events that initiated the larger shutdown of society during our hideous COVID-19 spring. Basketball, at that point, was the biggest piece of the calendar we’d lost. And while it’s true that every pause and cancellation that followed would have happened with or without the NBA leading the way, the moment basketball stopped was the moment when the crisis became real for a great many people in this country. At least among the people in this country for whom it ever became real at all.

It would be natural, then, to see the NBA’s return as a metaphor for national progress, an opportunity to assess the return of society as a whole. That was then; this is now, you’d like to say. The NBA took action, and we took action. And just as the interruption of basketball pointed the way toward the larger shutdown, the resumption of basketball might point the way toward some form of normalcy—at least to the extent that “hermetically sealed theme-park quarantine pod” is a concept compatible with anything we understood as normal before the virus.

The obvious problem with this way of framing the restart, though, is that while the NBA may have advanced into something you could plausibly call “now,” it’s still then out there for the rest of us. In fact, it looks more and more then-like every day. The virus is not contained, much less eradicated. The depravity and indifference of our national leadership has emboldened the most catered-to group of oppressed people in history—the subset of white Republicans who believe themselves to be suffering under the tyranny of a government they nevertheless control—to extend their scorched-earth culture war to the issue of mask-wearing, putting tens of thousands of lives at risk in the name of a [squints at notes] principle of [turns paper over] some kind or other. The recorded death toll passed 150,000 this week, the same span of days during which the United States president retweeted an anti-mask video from a Houston preacher-doctor who also believes that common gynecological problems are the result of women having sex with demons in their sleep.

Who’s ready for some basketball! Beyond the jurisdiction of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the state of the pandemic is enough—this is putting it mildly—to make you question the wisdom of restarting sports at all. That’s especially true given what we’ve seen in other returning leagues. The virus has torn through college football teams; the first major outbreak in baseball—almost 20 Marlins players and staffers testing positive—hit this week, just a few days after MLB finally held its long-postponed Opening Day. Baseball and football are not being played in anywhere near as securely sealed-off an environment as the Disney bubble, but still. Schools can’t safely reopen. Offices are closed into 2021. American travelers aren’t being allowed into the European Union. Does anything about this moment scream out for a Magic-Nets game?

As grim as everything is almost everywhere else, though, things inside the NBA’s quarantine zone look … pretty decent, actually? Recent rounds of testing have revealed no new infections among players in the bubble. In contrast to the increasingly contagion-dystopian headlines out of baseball and football (and, uh, America as a whole), the conversation around the NBA has offered a fairly NBA-typical mix of social responsibility and silliness. Players are discussing how to use the restart to support the aims of Black Lives Matter and the anti-police-brutality protests that have swept the country this summer. Lou Williams’s quarantine-breakaway run for chicken wings at Atlanta’s Magic City strip club has mostly been a source of jokes.

Amid a rampaging plague that threatens to reshape basic aspects of society, in other words, the NBA has improbably managed to remain itself. All it took was the construction of a fabulously intricate, hyper-choreographed alternate universe within America’s most popular amusement park—a kind of basketball Tron in which the outdated computer world is replaced by, uh, Epcot.

Medically, this seems to have worked—so far, at least—because of the robust precautions built into the system. Culturally, I think it’s worked because the NBA was already, in essence, a fabulously intricate alternate universe with theme-park overtones. Stage an NFL game in an arena with no fans and you’re left with a bizarre diminishment of the NFL experience. Stage an NBA season as a locked Disney World meta community and you get an exaggeration of the experience. So much about starting the season right now seems unwise and disturbing and reckless. It might also represent the logical culmination of the modern NBA itself.

No league has lived more on social media than the NBA; well, guess which platforms are best adapted to allow us a vicarious experience of life inside the bubble? No league has gotten more mileage out of interpersonal drama—or even interpersonal non-drama, basic relationship stuff like friendship, and clowning around, and eating lunch; guess where the focus will be now that the whole league is sequestered on a single campus closed off to the outside world?

The NBA was always a little like a reality show; now it has its own Real World mansion, its own Top Chef kitchen, and its own Survivor island all in one. Without crowds, we’ll get more player reaction GIFs; without travel, we’ll get more flagrant tampering. If Zion Williamson, James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Pascal Siakam haven’t all somehow signed with the Nuggets by mid-September, it will only be because something even weirder has happened. It could be anything. Kyrie Irving isn’t even playing this season and I’m convinced he could end up on Mars. “From up here, it looks round,” he’ll tweet, before declaring a breakaway republic, unleashing an army of battle droids, and implementing a suite of sensible social policies.

It’s no surprise that the NBA is much better run than the country as a whole. And even with the best planning in the world, the bubble might not work. Still, amid all the uncertainties of this terrible moment, the real outrage seems not that the NBA is sequestered in a Disney quarantine bubble, but that the rest of us are not sequestered in one, or in something like one. That is, safely distanced in as protected an environment as possible, whether or not it sits on the slopes of Space Mountain. It’s a strange enough fact that the NBA could import itself into the Magic Kingdom without compromising its identity. It’s a stranger one—but plausible, given the results from the bubble so far—that in doing so, the world’s goofiest, most intimate, and most sporadically revolutionary major sports league might be showing the rest of us the best way to survive.