Zach LaVine & Team USA returning to "bubble" life as they prepare for Olympics

The players, coaches, and staff of USA Basketball are returning to a world of masks, Covid testing, and perhaps playing without fans in attendance. On Monday, Tokyo confirmed 342 new Covid cases, the 16th straight day of an increase.

Thank you for your service.

It's a phrase we often hear directed toward members of the military. Though there are many ways to perform public service, like government work, police and fire protection and enforcement, medical and hospital employment, aid to the disadvantaged and elderly.

Basketball, too, like your USA Olympic teams.

Few are going to look at it that way. After all, these young men are wealthy, really wealthy, celebrated, and just going to play games. But that's why this USA men's basketball Olympic team that includes the Bulls Zach LaVine also is performing public service.

Because not only do these athletes not have to—unlike most Olympics participants whose principal chance at earnings is even four years—but this has been a most unusual compressed NBA season with yet another short offseason to come before the start of next season on the regular calendar in September.

And then also to put back on their face masks, return to daily Covid testing, wear tracking devices constantly to avoid exposure. And then perhaps return to the enclosed environments of the past winter with Tokyo experiencing a Covid surge with a slow vaccine rollout that forced elimination of spectators from the games beginning July 23. On Monday, Tokyo confirmed 342 new cases, the 16th straight day of an increase. The government announced new restrictions Thursday.

Yet, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton and Devin Booker from the competing Finals teams told USA Basketball they will get on planes immediately after the Finals and fly directly to Tokyo to join their teammates. USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo said last week LaVine practically jumped through the phone to accept an invitation. Kevin Durant, despite missing more than half the regular season games just back this season from a torn Achilles, signed on. So did Kevin Love despite missing 47 games injured and already with two gold medals. As did Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum despite turmoil with their teams. USA players are not paid.

LaVine lays it in past Timberwolves big man and USA Select Team member Naz Reid.

Most, of course, are comfortable with contracts guaranteeing more than $100 million. But NBA players have been perhaps as vulnerable as ever this past season to so called soft tissue injuries and long periods of inactivity for injury. There have been various theories, if few facts, including LeBron James blaming the surfeit of games in a short period of time without the usual offseason.

But still they wanted to serve and wear that red-white-and-blue.

"It boils down to what I told them," coach Gregg Popovich from the Spurs told media on a Zoom conference Wednesday. "I think they are making a really big and important sacrifice considering Covid for a year and a half, being in the bubble and then going through this season. Society wise the social issues going on exacerbate the feelings you might have during Covid, being isolated so much. And the quick turnaround to go back over and especially the three guys who will come right after the Finals.

"I think it's a testament to their character, their desire to show the world they can be the best basketball team," Popovich added. "They love playing, but to me I call it a sacrifice. They're sacrificing a lot. They can't take their friends or family to Tokyo. I don't know what fans are going to be there. I don't know if even what Japanese fans are going to be there from everything we hear. It's a huge sacrifice and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that."

Grant Hill is replacing Colangelo as USA Basketball manager. Because of the restrictions on the traveling party he won't be able to travel with the team to Japan. USA Basketball teams historically have played a series of games overseas to prepare for the Games.

Because of the virus restrictions and complications, the USA team will play five exhibition games in Las Vegas starting Saturday in a controlled environment. Media has not been permitted to attend the training camp. There has never been a USA Basketball isolation of this magnitude, and it only gets stricter and more complicated when the team arrives in Japan. The team will not be permitted to leave the hotel in Tokyo basically except for games and practices.

Again, like last summer. Yet another bubble.

But it hasn't popped for some of the best in the NBA.

Colangelo and Popovich with assistants Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce and Jay Wright had little trouble assembling a team with every one having been an All-Star except Jerami Grant amid multiple all-NBA and all-defensive team players. It's one of the more experienced teams with an average age of 28 and three returning gold medalists in Durant, Love and Draymond Green. It's not a big team with Bam Adebayo the center, but with the seven-foot Durant and a plethora of top shooters with Lillard, Booker, Bradley Beal and LaVine.

"I've always been excited about the Olympics," said Popovich, who missed the cut when he tried for the 1972 team. "Being part of the Olympics has been a dream, a chance to be part of something special. I look in the mirror and say, ‘What am I doing here?' It's a heck of a privilege and great fun. You feel amazed you can be in that kind of company. If you can represent your country against the rest of the world to preserve our game and be the best, that challenge is energizing and something I look forward to."

Thank them for their service.