Book Review: Bubbleball by Ben Golliver

Have you ever wondered what life is like living in a bubble?  While many of us have thanks to the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak, few of us lived life under the strict conditions of an isolated environment.

Have you ever wondered what it was like living life within the NBA playoff bubble?  Have no fear for in his latest effort, Ben Golliver, takes us on a journey inside the 2020 NBA post-season, reminding us of all the external influences and internal confinement that came along with it.

In Bubbleball: Inside the NBA’s Fight to Save a Season, Golliver describes an environment that is sterilized and confined, yet bubbling and brewing.  In early 2020, Ben Golliver was dispatched to Orlando, Florida.  He set out to write about basketball, bubbles and what he refers to as “the most abnormal circumstances of his lifetime.  The jarring restrictions were straight out of dystopian fiction.  For a full week I had been strictly confined to a hotel room.  Once a day, I was allowed to step onto my porch for a few minutes so that medical professionals in full scrubs could wash my nostrils and throat.  Prepackaged meals were left at my door by scurrying staffers who wore face shields and medical gloves.  My room’s windows didn’t open.  Visitors were forbidden.”

This was to be no picnic of an assignment, even for the most obsessed of self-professed fan boys, i.e., Golliver.  In other words, if you thought the NBA was playing around with its plans to host a post-season once its regular season was cancelled, Golliver is here to convince you otherwise.  He was sent by his employer, the Washington Post, to cover the story, an opportunity for which they paid fifty grand.  The result, is Bubbleball.

Golliver tracks in vivid detail the problems the NBA faced in hosting a quarantined post-season. “Aside from health concerns, there were plenty of looming logistical challenges.  If an outbreak occurred, would a team have to forfeit games or be sent into quarantines?  Could the schedule be delayed?  If television revenue was driving the league to fast-track a return, would there be special rules to accommodate a star player if he tested positive? The NBA took no chance enforcing its rules.  The bubble was only as good as its weakest link.  The NBA held so many health meetings, issued so many reminder texts, and watched us so carefully that I became more afraid of accidentally breaking the rules than of the coronavirus.”

On May 23, 2020, plans to continue with the NBA season were finally unveiled.  Players, owners and the league agreed.  There would, at long last, be a post-season, conditions permitting.  Disney World would be the host.

Golliver reminds us that this all took place within the context of heightened civil unrest and players wondering whether they should even continue the season at all. “George Floyd’s killing brought to the surface the racial overtones of the bubbles proposal and the demographic disparities between the NBA owners and players.  Protesting while playing had the potential to touch millions of voters and provide a collective voice on matters of racism and police brutality.  The bubble could be a showcase for Black anger, resolve and political power.”

Quarantine protocol for the players was as strict as it was for Golliver. “Players would undergo a thirty-six-hour quarantine in their hotel rooms upon arrival, wear masks and maintain social distance in public and stay out of one another’s rooms at all time.  Family members would not be permitted at first and physical contact with the outside world would be prohibited.”

When play finally reconvened, it was with no fans in the stands.  “With almost no one else in the building, I could hear everything – play calls, trash talk, and arguments with the officials.  The action was right in my face, and I had never seen basketball look so fast, physical and exhausting.  Chemistry seemed more important than pure talent.  Living in the bubble was a chore, and playing in the empty gyms was a constant test of a team’s internal motivation.  If players weren’t on the same page or if they weren’t fully bought into the experience, the cracks were bound to show.  A team couldn’t hide its warts in an empty gym.”

The murder of George Floyd always loomed in the background and then, one night in Kenosha, a young black man named Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer.  A league that already wanted to take a stand against social injustice knew it couldn’t sit quietly.  Golliver recalls the events of the Milwaukee Bucks protest, all this taking place within already compromising situations. Should the post-season continue?  “The players had come so far and sacrificed so much that I wouldn’t have faulted them for pulling the plug.”

As we know now the season went on when it, once again, almost did not.  Golliver recaps each series as it unfolds, the plays, the players and the personalities.  “The bubble felt more like the season finale of Survivor.  Whichever team was left standing would get the trophy, and then everyone would go home.”

While life was devastating for those of us who lost loved ones during the pandemic, Golliver portrays what life was like on the inside.  He quotes LeBron “At times I was questioning myself.  Should I be here?  Is this worth sacrificing my family?”

By now, we know how the story ends, with LeBron winning his fourth championship, this one with the Los Angeles Lakers but we never really knew what happened on the inside until now. 

Three months and 92 swab tests later, the season was complete.  So was Bubbleball.  The book was published less than a year after the NBA’s successful bubble experiment was complete.  Down the road, I can see Bubbleball becoming an important work, a reference to all that happened within those months where a league, and a team, persevered in a time of social strife and medical uncertainty.

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2 Replies to “Book Review: Bubbleball by Ben Golliver”

  1. They don’t make a bubble big enough for all the fools in this world.
    Take care brother.

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