Mandatory individual workouts began again Wednesday as the calendar turned to July, but the monthslong mental test begins next week when the Miami Heat arrives at Walt Disney World to prepare for the restart of the NBA season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heat players and staff will bus to the Disney complex on July 8, quarantine in their individual hotel rooms at the Gran Destino Tower at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort until they return two negative COVID-19 tests at least 24 hours apart and then begin training camp in advance of the team’s Aug. 1 re-opener against the Denver Nuggets. The Heat is guaranteed to spend at least nearly two months in the Disney bubble since it has already clinched a playoff spot and could spend up to three months in the bubble if it advances to the NBA Finals.
“The realization that we’re a week out [from leaving for Disney], that hit home a little bit more so today for me, personally,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday during a Zoom call with reporters. “... We’re no different than anybody else. We are going through all these emotions. Thinking about preparing for a bubble situation and trying to make sure that we keep the main thing the main thing and keeping everybody healthy and safe. That’s the No. 1 thing. I think we all are experiencing a level of anxiety and angst and stress about being away from our families for an extended period of time.”
Spoelstra said all 17 players on the Heat’s roster (including two-way contract players Kyle Alexander and Gabe Vincent) will be with the team at Disney for the restart, meaning none have yet decided to opt out of the remainder of the season. Center Meyers Leonard (sprained left ankle) and guard Tyler Herro (right ankle soreness) were both dealing with injuries just before the season was suspended on March 11, but Spoelstra said the hiatus has allowed both to return to full health.
Forward Derrick Jones Jr. tested positive for COVID-19 last week, but he still intends to participate in the resumption of the season. Jones has not returned to work out at the team facility yet, but Spoelstra said Jones is taking part in individual workouts over Zoom while quarantining.
Spoelstra added that no Heat player other than Jones has tested positive for COVID-19. Mandatory COVID-19 testing for NBA players and staff continues to be issued “every other day through the day of the team’s travel to the campus (and both of the two days prior to the travel day).”
Wednesday was considered a soft deadline for players to notify teams of their intention to sit out the restart because it’s the day teams must submit to the league a list of players who will travel into the bubble. But there’s nothing stopping players from opting out of the restart whenever they want — even after they arrive at Disney.
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The NBA’s restart plan calls for 22 teams to finish their seasons at a fanless quarantine-type environment just outside of Orlando at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The season is scheduled to resume on July 30 with each team playing eight “seeding games,” and the postseason will begin Aug. 17 and end in October.
NBA players who are considering skipping the restart have expressed concern that basketball could distract from the Black Lives Matter movement. Others are worried about being away from family for weeks, with player guests not allowed inside the NBA bubble until late August following the first round of the playoffs. Some are uneasy about the restrictive health and safety protocols that come with living in the bubble. There’s also the risk of contracting COVID-19 or sustaining an injury following a four-month break from games.
Among the NBA players who have already reportedly made the decision to sit out the restart: Portland Trail Blazers forward Trevor Ariza (family considerations), Washington Wizards forward Davis Bertans (impending free agent), Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley (family considerations), Dallas Mavericks center Willie Cauley-Stein (family considerations), Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler (family considerations) and center DeAndre Jordan (positive COVID-19 test).
“I think it’s OK, first of all, to allow everybody to be human. That sucks,” Spoelstra said of being away from family for an extended period of time. “It’s not something that any of us are looking forward to, whether you have a family or not. Being away from home, but certainly if you have family and kids, it’s not an ideal situation.
“We will try to make it feel as much like home as possible on the road, and everybody will have opportunities to Zoom or FaceTime with bigger screens, and we’re really going to encourage everybody to stay connected as much as possible. That doesn’t make it any easier. This next week is going to be a struggle for a lot of us. Like I said, that’s OK to go through these emotions. That’s what makes us human.”
The NBA is allowing players to opt out of the bubble plan and they will not be penalized for staying home, but those players will not be paid for missed games unless they are ruled to be an excused or protected player because they are in risk categories for COVID-19 or test positive for the virus.
“At first I was excited,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said of the restart during a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday. “Then I was really concerned because I’m leaving my family behind, two kids and my wife. But we are all professionals. This is our job. I’m excited to be able to play again.”
Players and staff entering the bubble will be expected to remain on the NBA campus at all times — other than for a few exceptions — until their seasons are over to protect against the potential spread of COVID-19. If a player leaves the bubble without approval, they will be subject to at least 10 days of quarantining on campus.
The Heat’s longest road trip this season lasted five games and spanned eight days. The road trip to complete the season at Disney will be much, much longer.
“You have to talk about it and rely on your structure and culture, and the habits you already built in terms of mental toughness,” Spoelstra said of life in the NBA’s quarantine bubble. “This championship run will require an incredible amount of emotional and mental stamina. There’s no question about it. That challenge, I think, is the type of challenges that our team and our players really thrive on. ... I think embracing that and again falling back on your foundations and your values hopefully can help us.”
▪ NBA teams have until Wednesday at 5 p.m. to submit their lists to the league of the 37-person traveling party for the restart. Each team can initially bring up to 37 people into the bubble.
“It’s an agonizing process,” Spoelstra said of making that list. “I think we all have to have a great deal of empathy and compassion for staff members who really have a big time role that won’t be able to go.”