DARIUS BAZLEY sized up his aim. All he had to do was get the blue bean bag on the board to keep the cornhole game alive. Standing on the other side of the cornhole board was Thunder point guard Chris Paul with his arms folded, leading by one point and awaiting the result of Bazley’s toss.
The bag landed on the board and the rookie exploded in a short-lived celebration.
Only a few moments later, Bazley was on the ground doing 20 pushups as a result of his loss on the next round. Chris Paul stood over him counting each rep. Although his mask covered his face, his smile was evident.
This was the scene only moments after the Thunder had been released from their 36-hour mandatory quarantine upon arrival at the Grand Floridian Hotel in Walt Disney World. For the first time since sitting together in the locker room after walking off the floor before the Utah Jazz game on March 10, the entire team was back together again.
“It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable,” said Paul on how it felt to be together as a group again. “The team group chats are always great; the team Zooms are great; but there’s nothing like seeing each other. I’ve said this and I truly believe it, we’ve got a special team. We’ve got a really special team and we genuinely love to be around each other.”
On Friday afternoon, the Thunder participated in their first full-team practice since March. It’s the moment they had all been waiting for, being on the floor hooping together again. In the NBA’s basketball vacuum, they’ll get their fair share of hoops during their stay but, as the team and many others have come to realize, with no ability to travel outside of the campus, there will be significant amount of downtime outside of practices.
Some have already figured out ways to fill the pockets of time with activities like cornhole or video games. Coaches like Billy Donovan plan to fill that time analyzing as much practice and film as possible to sculpt out a gameplan for their teams’ opponents. Others, like Steven Adams, have gotten a little more creative with their downtime plans.
“You know, some guys brought some video games and stuff but I think the coolest thing was that Steve-O brought his guitar,” noted Danilo Gallinari. “With me playing a little guitar too I think we're going to find some time to play some guitar.”
For a guy like Chris Paul, these lulls in action won’t come as frequently as many others in the league. As the president of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), he played an instrumental role in the planning and the execution of the league’s restarted season in Orlando.
“I'm really happy for Chris because I know that he put an enormous amount of time in working with the players association with the league with Michelle Roberts, to get everybody here to Orlando,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “And I think the way Chris navigated through all this to try to really help the players and the league get back to playing has been remarkable.”
Now that the teams have arrived, the work still isn’t quite done on Paul’s end. The fight for social justice is still on the forefront of his mind even as he adds practices and regular basketball back onto his docket. As NBPA president, he has been an advocate for players’ ability to use their voices and platforms in this new environment. One way in particular will be the ability for players to use the space on the back of their uniforms usually reserved for their last names for words or phrases linked to social justice. Paul will be wearing the word “Equality” on his jersey.
“As nice as it is to get back on the court, I don’t think anyone on our team or any other players down here has lost sight of the cause,” said Paul. “We’re obviously here to play, but that’s still our focus to shed light on different things that we think needs a lot of work. I think the players will continue to come together, continue to talk and understand that’s just as important as any game is.”
The day before his team departed for Orlando, the Thunder announced their partnership with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to create the Thunder Fellows Program– a program designed to unlock career opportunities for Black students in Tulsa. According to Paul, the team group chat was buzzing and he sent a text to Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti telling him how glad he was that the team was doing this.
“That’s called being proactive and putting words into action,” said Paul. “Obviously we know a lot of the things that have taken place (in Tulsa) and I’m glad to see that the team is being active in this.”
This is the type of work that Paul will look to continue while he and his fellow NBA players are spotlighted in Walt Disney World. That along with winning basketball games–
and maybe squeeze in a few rounds of cornhole.