Brooklyn Nets Notebook: On the NBA Campus Experience in Orlando

The Nets spent seven weeks on the NBA Campus in Orlando, playing or practicing nearly every day

At the very beginning, Jacque Vaughn described the experience that awaited the Brooklyn Nets on the NBA Campus in Orlando as something singular that would link those involved going forward, just for having gone through it all together.

On Sunday night, that journey came to a close after 48 days with Brooklyn’s Game 4 loss to the Toronto Raptors. After quarantining upon arrival and emerging for their first practice on the campus on July 9, the Nets either practiced or played a game for all but a handful of days up through Sunday night, departing the following day.

It was a case of extreme togetherness, as Vaughn might say, from the court to the dining tables to the pools to the golf course. For the players, was it what the head coach thought it would be?

“Very much so,” said Garrett Temple. “Going through what we're going through, this situation being so unique, so new, so different for everybody and being the group of guys that actually came down here having another six new guys, seven new guys, whatever it was that came down here, this was going to be a unique situation and it definitely brought us close together. This is something that we're going to remember for the rest of our lives that we did and we did it together.”

“A lot of memories. Hopefully, these guys will be able to look back on this time in their life and see how special it was,” said Vaughn. “I think we are forever linked, whether it is remembering a practice, whether it is remembering a game, whether it is remembering time spent together, meals, golfing, fishing, all of the above. I think it’s been very special in the sense that we’ve had a few of our guys who are able to continue this together, hopefully, in the future, but at the same time be a part of something special just because of the circumstances.”

The circumstances were, of course, unexpected and unprecedented, born out of necessity and even a little desperation. The NBA suspended play for the 2019-20 season on March 11, and it became clear over the following few weeks that a quick resumption of play, or any return under familiar protocols, was not in play.

The league chose the Disney property in Florida, with its multiple hotels and arenas to host team travel parties, league staff, and games. Ballrooms were transformed into practice centers with multiple courts. Twenty-two teams were included — all those within six games of playoff position — for three weeks of practice and three scrimmage games, followed by an eight-game seeding round to finalize playoff position that began on July 30.

“This was a one-of-a-kind event,” said Jarrett Allen. “An unforeseeable event that none of us could have predicted. We all came in here not knowing what was going to happen. We all came in not knowing how it was gonna be, how were we going to play basketball, how were we going to practice. But we all came in together. We all came in as one, and I think that unified us even more at the end of the day.”

“I think it was definitely a bonding experience,” said Caris LeVert. “I think if you ask anybody who was a part of this bubble experience, I think they’ll tell you the same thing. There’s not really a lot to do down here except for be with your brothers. I think we got real close and I think that showed on the court each and every time we went out there and fought.”

The final element to this convergence of circumstances that created the environment in Orlando came to the fore in late May after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Protests against police brutality swept across the country and became central to shaping the NBA Campus experience. Players wore “BLACK LIVES MATTER” t-shirts while kneeling during the national anthem before games. The courts they played on bore the same message across center court.

Temple, as a vice president with the National Basketball Players Association, played a role in creating the list of social justice messages that players chose from to wear across the tops of the backs of their jerseys, with their names moving to the bottom.

“I'm glad we were able to continue to play basketball, but most importantly continue to push the message for social justice,” said Temple, speaking immediately after Game 4 on Sunday. “First time guys have ever worn these messages on their jersey that I know of, especially for this amount of time. And the main thing we were trying to do was push that message and let us play a game that we love and that's our job. I'm happy we were able to push that message, continue to push that message and hopefully this spurs even more action in the future.”

“It’s amazing that we were able to set up the bubble and even be able to play basketball again,” said Tyler Johnson, also right after Game 4. “I said it the other day, just with all the turmoil that we have in this country, so thankful that we had a chance to even play, and now we turn our focus back. I know for me, I turn my focus back to some of these problems that we have going on, and being able to help out in whatever way that I can.”

On the court, the Nets added five new players to the roster, and after dropping the opening game of their resumption of play on July 31, they won five of their next six to clinch the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They beat the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic without LeVert, Allen, and Joe Harris, and also jumped out to a 21-point first-quarter lead in a win over the Western Conference’s No. 2 playoff seed, the LA Clippers.

The Nets closed the seeding round with a 134-133 loss to the streaking Portland Trail Blazers and scorching-hot Damian Lillard in a nationally televised thriller, before taking on the defending champion Raptors in the playoffs.

“We had an extreme resilience as a group, a competitive nature about us as a group, and a sacrifice as a group for the men who came,” said Vaughn. “And extremely grateful for this group and the time we spent together. Like I said, we’re forever linked, and appreciate everyone who stepped on that floor and everyone who helped the men who stepped on that floor.”

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