On any given day inside the NBA bubble, Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic has to decide whether to stay up late in order to talk to his family or wake up extra early. Dragic’s family lives 5,000 miles away in Europe, and his busy schedule coupled with the six-hour time difference allows only a few windows to speak to them.
“Luckily, we have FaceTime so we can see each other,” Dragic said. “Of course I miss them, I love them. But you know, I’ve got two young kids, I don’t know what they would do here. You don’t have a lot of things to do.”
The inclusion of players’ families and friends within the bubble was a major topic of discussion before the season’s restart, and something the NBA made a point to factor in as it balanced out the health risks. The league finally decided on a plan to allow those folks in at the beginning of the second round of the playoffs, which started on August 30, and the NBPA has also set up a teacher-led classroom for players’ children to continue attending school inside the bubble. But even as some players have now started seeing loved ones for the first time in months, there’s no manual or game plan for how to introduce those people to such an unprecedented, basketball-focused environment.
“Everyone has a different read on the situation,” the Raptors’ Marc Gasol said last Monday. “I think we all miss our loved ones, but we all have different needs.”
“Athletes and their families are very used to negotiating time away and time together,” Kensa Gunter, a clinical sports psychologist who works with the Atlanta Hawks, said in a phone interview this week. “There’s no right or wrong way to navigate this situation. It’s really a group of people … who are still navigating their own individual experiences while in the midst of the collective situation.”
For some players, that’s meant not bringing anyone in at all. The logistics of getting Dragic’s family stateside was far too complicated to be worth it, so they decided to remain apart until Dragic could get home. Gasol said he made a similar decision, and Dragic’s teammate, Jimmy Butler, told a TNT sideline reporter that he didn’t bring his family into the bubble because this was a “business trip.”
Dragic, for his part, said he agrees with Butler’s mindset, and that he sees a connection between his stellar play since the season restarted and the fact that this environment gives way to a greater level of focus. “The only focus right now is basketball and [trying] to win games,” Dragic said, comparing the setup to being with the Slovenian national team. “This is something that if you go home [after games] and you’ve got kids at home and a wife, it’s a bit different.”
For a number of players, though, seeing their families again has been a perfect pick-me-up, a necessary distraction from the all-basketball, all-the-time habitat the bubble has created. The Raptors’ Fred VanVleet brought his wife and kids into the bubble last week, and the heartwarming video of their reunion quickly went viral:
Fred VanVleet being reunited with his kids ❤️— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) August 31, 2020
(via shontaineal_/IG) pic.twitter.com/oBgesd8Lgf
“I had goose bumps watching it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of the VanVleet video. “Not everybody chose to [bring families], but I think it’s really cool. It’s a necessary boost.”
Denver head coach Mike Malone talks to the media almost every day, and whether by habit or choice, you can almost always count on him to specify how many days he and the Nuggets have been living inside the bubble.
“We’ve been here for 55 days,” Malone said before Game 6 of the team’s first-round series against the Jazz.
“58 days. That’s how long we’ve been here in the bubble,” he said after a Nuggets’ practice last week.
Oftentimes, like it did before Game 7 against the Jazz, the mention comes with another specific detail: “57 days away from our families.”
While the players were permitted to bring people into the bubble starting in the second round, nobody else on the ground in Orlando got the same opportunity. Coaches, in particular, were initially excluded.
Malone spoke to the media on Friday (day 60 of his time in Orlando, as he pointed out) and expressed his frustration and sadness about the policy. “Shame on you NBA,” Malone said, his voice and tone conveying an angry, but pleading, emotion. “This is crazy. I miss my family.”
Denver coach Mike Malone points out that it’s Day 60 in the bubble and he thinks it’s “criminal in nature” for the NBA not to let coaches bring in families. “I say shame on you, NBA. This is crazy. I miss my family.” pic.twitter.com/oBTve7zB3m— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) September 4, 2020
Malone called the league’s choice “criminal in nature.” The Lakers’ Frank Vogel agreed with Malone’s sentiment that he wished his family was in Orlando, but declined to say much else.
“Everybody should have the same opportunity,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, before joking that he would “sacrifice some journalists” to see his family.
When asked for comment on Malone’s remarks, the league sent this statement through a spokesperson: “Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, limiting the number of people on campus was always a top priority. We agreed that players could bring in a limited number of family and close relations beginning with the second round of the playoffs. No other team or league staff, including coaches and referees, has guests on campus. We are hoping to add additional family members for other participants beginning with the conference finals. We are mindful of the incredible hardship these restrictions impose and wish it were not necessary for the health and safety of everyone involved.”
The NBA Coaches Association also released a statement by way of their president, Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle, calling the challenges coaches experience by being away from their families “overwhelming.”
On Tuesday, the NBA complied with the coaches’ pleas. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the league had sent teams a memo that said they would be allowed to bring up to 10 guests for coaches and staff once the teams qualified for the conference finals. As pointed out in the ESPN report, this is something that has been in the works for weeks, and though only the conference finals teams will get the benefit of having families come in, the development could also help set a precedent should the league need to enter some kind of bubble or bubbles for the 2020-21 season.
“I think it’s great that the league acknowledged and listened to our feedback about it,” Spoelstra said Tuesday. Earlier that day, Brad Stevens revealed that he had been part of the conversations to get guests for coaches and team staff since May.
“We just found out this morning and we have 10 spots,” Stevens said. “I’ll share my own thoughts privately with the NBA, and that’s all I’ll have to say about it.”
Nothing about this NBA season has been normal. But for some players, the presence of family members may provide the exact sense of normalcy they need to get through the last month of competition.
“When you think about a typical basketball season, 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 told me in July. “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.”
VanVleet is a perfect example of how positive those effects can be. He told reporters on August 31 that he hadn’t seen his kids since Father’s Day. He was reunited with them last Monday, after the Raptors had lost Game 1 to the Celtics, and VanVleet said it was perfect timing.
“Right on time after getting our butts kicked yesterday,” VanVleet said. “So that will take my mind off it for a little bit today.”
Marcus Morris Sr. and Markieff Morris, the twin brothers on both L.A. teams, are two other players who opted to bring their families in. Both groups entered the bubble last week, and between the two of them, it amounted to a Morris family reunion of sorts. Marcus’s son and wife, who is pregnant and expecting their second son at the end of the month, were seen on the sidelines last week, as Marcus lifted his son in the air a few times before tipoff.
“That was one thing that was missing here,” Marcus said. “I haven’t seen them actually in three months because I was in L.A. with the team and doing my quarantine there, so I wasn’t able to see them.”
Because of his wife’s pregnancy, Marcus said that his family was staying only until Tuesday of this week, but that even a short meetup was worth it. “It was awesome,” he said.
Markieff’s wife and 3-year-old daughter also arrived in Orlando last week, and though he had previously said he didn’t expect them to stay too long given the setup, he mentioned it was a “moment I’d been waiting for … I missed them a whole lot.”
Despite that boost, though, Markieff was quick to point out that he needed to thread the needle between spending time with his family and what he came to the bubble to do in the first place. “Seeing our families is one of the most important things,” he said. “But you gotta keep the priority at hand, and that’s coming here to win a championship.”
While some players opted to forego trying to walk that tightrope, many, like the Morris twins, decided it was exactly what they needed to change up their monotonous lifestyle in the bubble. And while Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse said there’s no way to predict how the reunions with family will help or affect players, he believes it will have a positive effect.
“I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of love and joy … which they certainly need,” Nurse said last week before cracking a smile. “Hopefully that’ll translate to the court.”