The 2020-21 NBA season is now just a few weeks away, but we aren't far removed from one of the most ambitious operations in professional sports history. This summer, the league put together a bubble at Disney World to finish the 2019-20 season and playoffs, and by all accounts, it went better than anyone expected.
It wasn't perfect, and there were many challenges that came with everyone being isolated for months on end. But from a big picture perspective, the league kept everyone safe -- there were zero positive COVID-19 cases inside the bubble -- and they were able to complete the season and crown a champion.
With the bubble now in the rearview mirror, hopefully for good, here's a look at what NBA commissioner Adam Silver had to say about the experience. In a recently published interview with Bomani Jones in GQ Magazine, Silver shared his thoughts on a number of topics surrounding the league.
Silver on social justice...
Along with the logistical challenges and health and safety issues, one of the biggest concerns from the players heading into the bubble this summer was that it came in the wake of two high-profile police shootings -- George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville. With protests raging across the country, there were many players who were hesitant about leaving their communities behind, and a debate emerged about whether they would have a bigger voice together inside the bubble, or by refusing to play.
In the end, of course, the players decided to move forward with the games, with the caveat that the league would help promote their messages. "Black Lives Matter" was painted on the courts, and players wore jerseys with special social justice slogans. Silver said that the league ultimately decided to support the players on that front because it reinforced "bedrock principles" of the league:
"I think we ultimately understood that in an election cycle in the current environment, virtually anything we did would be viewed through a political lens. I mean, if mask wearing is viewed as political, certainly Black Lives Matter as a movement would be viewed as political. Having said that, and putting aside the precise expression of it, whether it said "end racism" on our floor or "Black Lives Matter," I kept reminding myself of the bedrock principles underlying this league. Those values that have been in place long before me, and long before most of the governors in this league. And that is a support of racial equality and social justice. Have we been perfect on these issues? Of course not. But it's been a bedrock principle, just like it is for this country, and the country's been far from perfect on it."
Silver on ratings and those who opposed the league's stances...
The league's decision to support the players' social justice initiatives became an immediate talking point, and whether it was all genuine or not, there was a decent amount of outrage from those who disagreed. When the TV ratings declined, it only furthered the argument for some that the league was making a mistake.
Silver, however, said there was no data to back up the idea that the league embracing "Black Lives Matter" caused their viewership to decline. In fact, he argued that there were many who became stronger supporters because of the league's efforts. At the same time, he acknowledged that the league has to think about the people who were opposed, as it's his goal to ultimately win over everyone.
The ongoing discussion with players has been: What is the best way to effect change? Now, I recognize that making people uncomfortable isn't inconsistent with making a change. But disenfranchising them potentially is, and discerning between the two is hard. And it may take some reflection after the season ends to better understand how people reacted to us, and in what cases. If we had not done certain things, would we have been responding to people who honestly weren't fans of the league to begin with, as opposed to engaging those people who are our fans?
It's interesting that you raise that issue with regard to David, because even when I got to the league, in the early '90s, that was still an issue. And in the same way that I think anybody would have been naive to think we were post-racial, of course those issues have never gone away. I wouldn't say that our goal still isn't to win those fans over; of course, my goal is to win everybody over. And part of winning them over is to listen to them and to maybe engage with them so they better understand our perspective.
Now, some people might suggest that the words Black Lives Matter are causing massive amounts of people to tune out the NBA. There's absolutely no data to support that. And in fact, as I said, there's no doubt there are some people—and whether or not they were truly our fans to begin with is unclear—who have become further engaged with the league because they believe in our players and they believe in the positions they've taken, even if they don't agree with everything they say. They respect their right to speak out on issues that are important to them.
Silver on the wildcat strike...
Many of the players' worst fears about going into the bubble were realized late in August, when Kenosha, Wisconsin police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. While much of the country again took to the streets to protest, players were stuck inside Disney World.
In the aftermath, they eventually went on a short wildcat strike, which was started by George Hill and the Milwaukee Bucks. Hill decided he simply couldn't play in the team's playoff game against the Orlando Magic, and the rest of the players supported him. Once they refused to take the floor, the rest of the players followed suit.
There was a brief period of time where it felt like the bubble was about to fall apart, and the season may not continue. However, after contentious meetings involving the players and owners, the games eventually went on with an agreement for the league and teams to renew their commitment to social justice.
Silver credited Michael Jordan for leading that initiative and said in some ways he believes that time ultimately brought everyone closer.
We had that discussion with a group of governors. Michael Jordan, as the chairman of the labor relations committee, led that meeting. Out of that meeting, we collectively agreed we would redouble our efforts to convert our arenas into polling places. Although we had agreed early in the summer to create a foundation, a partnership between the teams and the players, seeded with $300 million of capital from the team owners and dedicated to economic empowerment, there was a sense from the players that we needed another platform. You know, our voices are being heard, but how do we effect change? And what we decided was, let's create what we're calling the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition, which is an organization of owners and players that can effect legislative change. In some ways, we became closer as a result of that work stoppage and at least then we had a course of action. For the players it was: "All right, we now have a new organization that can focus specifically on these issues."
Silver on some of the challenges of the bubble...
Putting together a project of this magnitude was unprecedented, and despite the league's best efforts, there were some things they just couldn't prepare for. In one of the more humorous notes from his interview, Silver said that at one point the league was receiving over a thousand packages a day, and had to build a warehouse facility to deal with it all.
There were a lot of discussions about the food early on—putting aside the taste—that the vegetables weren't organic. That was something we were focused on. Finding other suppliers of the food inside the bubble. We did plan for the barbershop, and I think we were surprised by the amount of grooming of our players who frequented the barbershop. But I think one thing we hadn't planned sufficiently for was the amount of package deliveries. At the height of the campus operation, with 22 teams, we were getting over a thousand packages a day. I mean, everything from books, on one end of the spectrum, to exercise bicycles and gym equipment that guys wanted in their room. We had to set up an entire warehouse facility on campus to handle just the enormous load of delivery trucks.
But there were also more serious challenges, including the toll the whole summer had on players' mental health. Silver said the league was particularly focused on this issue, and that there was a significant increase in players seeking out help.
I was very concerned. And in fact, when you're down here in the bubble, there's an app. And you do a daily check-in and you answer questions about COVID symptoms. And the only other question, other than COVID symptoms, is: Would you like to speak to a mental health professional? So we asked the players that question every day, and obviously when they [want to speak with someone], it's confidential. All I know is, the overall use rate of the psychologists, on and off campus, has been fairly high.
I'm really encouraged, and I've said this many times, but thank you again to DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, because something that was completely unacceptable a few years ago in the league is now part [of it]. Players think of it like they would going to a shooting coach.
Silver on China...
Finally, Silver was also asked about the league's relationship with China, which has been on rocky ground ever since Daryl Morey's tweet supporting protests in Hong Kong. In response, the Chinese government temporarily took games off of China Central Television, and Houston Rockets games were taken off the air on Tencent.
All told, it was a major disaster for the league from a financial perspective, and the political fallout wasn't great either. There were those who latched onto the opportunity to paint the NBA as hypocritical for supporting domestic social justice issues while continuing to do business with China despite similar problems existing in that country as well.
Silver said he felt it was obvious why the league and players focused on the problems here in the States and said he ultimately hopes basketball can be a positive force for good.
And through the relationships that we have in China—directly with the hundreds of millions of people in China that follow NBA basketball—we are an exporter of American values. And again, I'm not naive. I don't mean to suggest that therefore their system of government will change because people watch NBA basketball. But I think through those relationships come commonality of interest and ultimately empathy and a better understanding of each other. I don't know how else to say it, but I think it's a net positive, because the alternative is disengagement.
But I guess that people could say, "Well, it's inconsistent with our values." And I'd say, "Do you make decisions based on one issue?" I still believe that by engaging with people in China, by exporting what is a piece of Americana through the NBA, that we are supporting our fundamental values and that the alternative of not doing it would not improve things.
The 2020-21 NBA season is set to tip-off on Dec. 22. Training camps open on Dec. 1, with preseason games running from Dec. 11-19. Due to the condensed schedule, the regular season will be 72 games.