It was Oct. 1, the Lakers held a 1-0 lead over the Heat in the NBA Finals, and after what seemed an eternity quarantined in the NBA bubble on the Walt Disney World campus near Orlando, they finally could see the light at the end of the tunnel on their arduous journey lasting more than a year thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that interrupted the season for four months.
Reflecting on an experience unlike any other in the history of basketball, Lakers guard Danny Green arrived at the perfect analogy to describe it. "It has been challenging to have a 48-hour ‘Groundhog Day’ pretty much throughout our whole time here," said Green, a native of North Babylon. "Every two days are the same. It’s either a game day or practice day, treatment. We stay on the same campus, we eat at the same restaurant, go to the same gyms, same hotel access."
The Lakers finally crossed the goal line when they won Game 6 on Sunday night to clinch an NBA Finals victory over a tough but undermanned Heat team. In the process, Green and Finals MVP LeBron James joined Robert Horry and John Salley as the only four players to win a championship with three different organizations.
For James, it marked his fourth title in 10 trips to the Finals, but while it’s always tough to be one of the last two teams standing at the end of the season, the circumstances surrounding this playoff run made it special for everyone involved. Winning a title was his only mission when he arrived at the Disney campus, but James acknowledged the larger political turmoil surrounding the event because NBA players also used their platform to comment on social issues.
"Over the last couple days, you definitely thought about it," James said after getting his hands on the trophy. "You thought about just being here, how successful it is. I commend [commissioner] Adam Silver and the NBA, NBPA executive director Michelle Roberts, [NBPA president] Chris Paul and everybody at the NBPA to make this happen and make this work.
"I think we can all say, from the social justice conversations, the voter suppression, police brutality, to have this platform and have our players unite like that, it’s something you will miss. You will think back on it.
"One of the biggest things beside all the things I mentioned, we had zero positive tests for as long as we were here — 95 days for myself. I had a little calendar I was checking off. No positive tests. That’s a success for everybody that was involved."
Even though the Heat finished on the losing end, coach Erik Spoelstra said it will be an experience his players treasure for the rest of their lives because of the unique circumstances. "We feel so honored and grateful that we were able to be a part of this," Spoelstra said. "I mentioned to these guys these are going to be lifetime memories that we had together. Regardless of whatever happens in the future, we’re going to remember this year, this season, this experience and the locker room brotherhood for the rest of our lives."
Lakers star Anthony Davis said he and James spent a lot of time at each other’s houses in Los Angeles during their first season together, but their friendship deepened while spending the better part of every day together at Disney World. Davis will be a free agent during the offseason, but his respect for the partnership he has developed with James was clear.
"The entire time here in the bubble, he never let us get too high, never get too low after losses," Davis said of James. "We’re just happy that we all put it together, sacrificed a lot, sacrificed being here for a little over three months. We said, ‘We’re here . . . we’ve got to make it all worth it.’ We were able to do that."
From the outside looking in, it might seem as though the 22 teams that began in the bubble had it good. They stayed in nice hotels, had meals prepared and could avail themselves of recreational activities, such as golf, fishing or time in the hotel pool. But while some family members eventually joined them in the bubble, the majority stayed home and communicated remotely.
James mentioned that he missed the 16th birthday of one of his sons, missed the early days of his daughter attending kindergarten "even though it’s through Zoom." He acknowledged there were times he questioned whether it was worth the sacrifice to be away from his family so long.
Asked to compare the difficulty of winning this title to his previous three, James said, "I can’t sit here and say one is more difficult than the other. I can just say I’ve never won in this atmosphere . . . This was very challenging and difficult. It played with your mind. It played with your body.
"I heard some rumblings from people that are not in the bubble, ‘Oh, you don’t have to travel.’ People just doubting what goes on in here. This is right up there with one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve ever had."
Veteran Lakers guard Rajon Rondo, who won a title in conventional fashion with the Celtics in the good old days of 2008, said, "This one, by far, is the hardest one. Not being able to see your family for so long took a toll on you mentally . . . It was an experience, once-in-a-lifetime, and hopefully, things get back to normal. But other than that, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing."