2020 NBA Playoffs

Special delivery: With players confined to campus, massive package distribution system becomes crucial

From pinball machines to wine, players seek to find comfort any way they can, which makes for enormous undertaking for NBA operations

ORLANDO, Fla. — With these NBA games taking place without fans, there’s this perception of buildings operating at zero capacity, which is not exactly true.

One of the largest sites on the Walt Disney World campus is quite full, especially on Mondays, when the place is packed almost to the rafters. They’re arriving by the truckloads, cramming every available spot, all here to see LeBron James. And Chris Paul. And Jimmy Butler. And Jayson Tatum. And, well, just about everyone on all the playoff rosters.

This is the NBA’s mail and package receiving station, which serves as the initial checkpoint for incoming shipments, and it’s a post office on steroids. With players and coaches and other personnel separated from their families and their typical lifestyles for more than two months now, the demand for care packages is steep.

And speaking of tall, has anyone found the mislabeled box intended for Bol Bol, the Denver Nuggets’ 7-foot-2 rookie center? He was in here the other day, sifting through the supplies and checking the tracking number. It’s a mystery how someone on the outside could fail to properly address a package to a player with the same name-name.

A warehouse attached to the Coronado Springs Resort is needed to satisfy all the daily mail activity. Heather Messer, the senior director of league operations and point person for the shipments, says the place gets at least 800 packages a day, typically 1,000. On the busiest of days, the number is closer to 1,100 packages — all of different sizes and shapes and weights.

The warehouse spans 30,000 feet, “and we fill the majority of it,” she said.

The entire operation is impressive in terms of scope, efficiency and range of packages. The items that fall from the trucks and flow through the doors reveal plenty about the players themselves, their likes and tastes and their personalities.

Who knew Rudy Gobert was a table tennis fanatic? The Utah Jazz’s All-Star center ordered a table and it sits, still folded, inside the warehouse. It is waiting to be claimed by an owner who’s not in a rush, obviously confident he and the Jazz are not leaving Disney anytime soon.

There’s also a few pinball machines, ordered by the Milwaukee Bucks, and the heavy suspicion is those thrill-seeking Lopez twins — Brook and Robin — are big pinball wizards.

Just days ago, the compassionate folks at Adidas sent care packages to every player who endorses the brand. They each received an NBA arcade game along with a four-foot barrel that’s filled with Adidas swag and so forth. Does James Harden and Damian Lillard, who each make north of $40 million a season in salary alone, really need more sneakers, T-shirts and toys?

I wonder how much of this is about adapting to life in here. When you’re faced with sitting in your room or getting out, what can you do here? So, they’ll buy things that they can use here.”

Heather Messer, NBA’s senior director of league operations

That’s beside the point: NBA players are trapped on campus and so their families and friends and companies are doing their part to make this extended stay as comfortable as possible.

“Man, those care packages are nice and right on time,” said Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker. “I always look forward to those.”

The two heaviest and strangest items received so far — it’s only August and The Finals end in mid-October — are a refrigerator and a leg press machine. Every player hotel room has a mini-refrigerator but those don’t make ice, so someone had his team purchase a real one, too.

The Bucks had the leg press machine shipped from Milwaukee and the only problem is the steel brontosaurus is too large to fit in the elevators and inside the doors of the player rooms. So it sits idle in the warehouse, where Giannis Antetokounmpo has yet to give it a try.

“I had to bring a punching bag to a player’s room that was shipped here during quarantine,” said Vernon Peterson, an office coordinator who assists with the process. “I guess you gotta work out, you know.”

Next on the who-knew list is a Casper mattress, fresh off the Amazon truck.

“I guess after six weeks,” Messer said, “someone decided they needed a new bed.”

Players are ordering up a storm on Amazon, which sends trucks three or four times daily to the NBA campus here. Tucker, who’s a big sneaker head, has purchased multiple pairs of shoes for his vast collection. Players are ordering microwave ovens by the dozens. The Disney golf courses are open to players, and first-time golfers recently bit by the bug here are buying golf clubs. Same is true for fishing gear: players here are learning to fish for the first time and buying rods and lures.

Two other products stand out in terms of supply and frequency: wine and water.

The desire for wine is understandable as players are using alcohol to wind down after practice and games. Some of them, such as Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum, have their own brands or are getting into the business. Along with hundreds of cases of wine, players are buying wine coolers, too.

“I didnt think so many would ship wine,” Messer said. “I thought it was more of a beer world here.”

As for water, it’s everywhere in the warehouse. Not only that, the range of water companies is vast, proving that when it comes to water, not all taste the same, evidently.

“I’ve never heard of Waiakea water,” Peterson said. “Have you heard of Eternal Water? I’ve heard of Essential water. But Eternal comes in by the case. And Topo Chico water? That’s over here.”

The packages, from envelopes to crates, all must pass health inspection as the coronavirus pandemic rages and the league remains hypersensitive about safety. That means the packages get spritzed with Clorox outside in the parking lot once they’re unloaded from the truck. Then they’re dollied into the warehouse and sorted and recorded by tracking number on computers. The total so far exceeds 60,000 and counting.

Messer is now 30 years on the job and her normal shipping sites during a normal season are All-Star weekend and The Finals.

“Compared to this,” she said, “they don’t compare.”

More than anyone else, she has a pulse on the players, their appetites and lifestyles. Or maybe their adjusted appetites and lifestyles as it’s all about blending into your surroundings.

“I wonder how much of this is about adapting to life in here,” Messer said. “When you’re faced with sitting in your room or getting out, what can you do here? So, they’ll buy things that they can use here.

“Maybe fishing, people are taking up golf, the lawn games, they’ll buy pool floats but mainly the extra large ones. It’s like, hey, let’s make the best of what we can do while we’re here as opposed to doing nothing.”

But … 100 tennis racquets? One team ordered that.

“I guess they wanted to hold a tournament,” Messer said.

One item inside the warehouse seems curious. It’s a pair of basketball hoops, sitting untouched, except for when a deliveryman gets the urge to shoot a 3-pointer after dropping off packages. Messer said those originally were to be set up in the hotel parking lots and used by workers and media, but social distancing rules nixed that idea.

With the NBA getting ready for the start of the playoffs on Aug. 17, and with further reductions coming as teams get eliminated, the amount of mail should decrease. Or so it would appear.

“Remember, the families of the players are coming here pretty soon,” Messer said.

Which means wives, significant others and kids are already placing their orders. The NBA’s gonna need a bigger warehouse.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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