The Thunder’s Attitude Toward Life in the NBA Bubble
On the Thunder’s weekly Zoom calls during the hiatus, the squad’s veteran point guard and president of the Players Association, Chris Paul, would take some time to fill in his teammates on the latest news and updates from the league on its path to return to play. While most players throughout the league had to scour social media or the news for the most recent proceedings, the Thunder had what Shai Gilgeous-Alexander called a “cheat code” in Chris Paul.
Nineteen weeks have passed since the Thunder’s game against the Utah Jazz was postponed on March 11. Each week for three months, Thunder players got a glimpse into the work that Paul and the league were doing every single day to resume play.
When those weekly reports became a reality in the form of an NBA bubble inside of Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, the Thunder roster already had an idea of just how much effort went into making it all possible.
“I think it made me, and I'm sure the rest of the guys, just have an appreciation and understanding of all the work that went in to this bubble and all the helping hands, people making this possible so we can get basketball back for the fans,” said Mike Muscala.
The league has heard its fair share of grumblings about life inside its campus. In order to create a safe enough environment for 22 NBA teams to play basketball in the midst of a global pandemic, several of the usual travel luxuries needed to take a seat on the backburner. Whether it's the choice of the food, activities or having to wear a facemask anywhere outside of your designated hotel room, there have been an expected amount of gripes from players as they adjust to this new lifestyle.
You won't hear any of that coming from the Thunder.
“It's been a really, really good group to work with, and I give them a lot of credit. There's not a lot of complaining or whining or any of that stuff. These guys have been total pros and they've handled themselves with great class and they've also understood the importance of really practicing the protocols that the NBA is put in place to keep everybody safe,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan.
Part of that can be attributed to having an inside look into the inner workings of the league through Paul. Another key aspect to the Thunder’s character is the standard and culture set within the organization. From the very beginning, the Thunder has adopted the process-based mentality that nothing good is expected to come easily. In turn, the Thunder has taken a team with eight new players and three new starters and formed one of the most well-rounded teams in the league in a position to play meaningful games in the postseason.
As a 22-year-old intern with the San Antonio Spurs, Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti learned a timeless lesson of humility from Greg Popovic, “Expect nothing, ask for nothing.”
At the time, there were no indications of a global pandemic bisecting the flow of the season and forcing 22 teams to finish out the games inside of a tightly-sealed Disney World bubble in Orlando, yet the Thunder is doubling-down on that short, classic Popovic-style proverb as they restart the season in that exact scenario.
“We came down here with no expectations and no entitlements and you’re not going to hear the Thunder asking for a lot of things or requiring a lot of amenities,” said Presti. “We have more than we need. We can get the job done with anything that they provide us because it’s the same thing everybody else is getting.”
Players like Danilo Gallinari who have over a decade of experience with international basketball have an added perspective to view their new environment. Seeing the corners of the world and different countries raises their appreciation for the lengths that the league is going through in order to make everyone feel safe enough to return to playing the game that they love again.
“I honestly wouldn't change anything,” said Gallinari.
“I've seen very bad situations. Trust me when I say that our setup is just amazing compared to the situations that I’ve lived traveling all around the world. I think it’s a great setup. There is nothing, at least on my side, nothing to complain about.”
That doesn't mean the team doesn't feel the effects of this new normal. For instance, the Thunder’s coaching staff still conducts its morning meetings individually through Zoom just like they did in Oklahoma City when they couldn’t meet in person. They're operating with half of their staff inside of the bubble, are restricted from going into one another’s rooms and don't have a designated meeting room separate from their team eating room.
However, once the players and coaches step on the 94-by-50 -foot slab of hardwood, it's all back to normal. That rhythmic melody of squeaking shoes and the pitter patter of the basketball brings it all back to the reason this bubble even exists——basketball.
“We are hungry. We want to get to work,” said Gallinari. “Every time we step on the court and we know that we have those three hours in the gym, we just want to get better. We love playing with each other spending time with each other in the gym.”
If you have to go inside of an NBA bubble, get tested every single day and wear a mask everywhere you go, that’s a price that the Thunder is willing to pay to play. Throughout its history over the course of its 2019-20 season, it has built a strong track record of controlling what can be controlled and staying unified in the face of adversity.
“Whatever gets thrown at us, we’ve always found a way to use that as a strength and that’s what we’ll do,” said Presti.