Before moving into the NBA bubble in Orlando next week, the Toronto Raptors have reunited in their own bubble in nearby Fort Myers, easing into their new basketball reality in a pandemic world.
The reigning NBA champions are the only guests at a Florida hotel that had been closed the past few months but reopened just for the team. They eat all their meals there and undergo regular testing for COVID-19. They wear masks, follow strict physical-distancing rules and spend lots of time alone in their individual rooms.
They practise at Florida Gulf Coast University a few players at a time. They don’t gather in person as a team and the daily routine is pretty tedious.
“I wake up really early and get tested, [they] check all your vitals and then [I] go work out. Then I have the rest of the day to do whatever,” said Fred VanVleet in the team’s first video call with reporters since the players arrived in Florida last week.
“I have been catching up on some sleep – being a stay-at-home dad over the last three-and-a-half months, I haven’t been sleeping too much – and playing some video games. There’s not really a whole lot to do. But just trying to get back and ramped up in terms of basketball activity and getting your body ready for what is to come.”
To account for a 14-day quarantine period after crossing the Canadian border, the Raptors left for Florida early. The team could be in the Sunshine State for four months. It’s players and essential staff only in Fort Myers – a group of 45 people. Each NBA team will be allowed just 37 in Orlando.
Regular testing has already become their new normal. Raptors president Masai Ujiri declined to say if anyone from the Raptors contingent has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. He said NBA protocol states the league handles any test-related announcements.
The NBA announced last week that 16 of the 302 players tested across the NBA were positive, but they did not name any.
The Raptors arrived in Florida just as new cases were surging in the state. VanVleet admits that feels a little unsettling.
“[The NBA bubbling in Florida] sounded good a month or two ago, not so much right before we got ready to leave. I think for the most part I just put the trust in the organization and understand that I don’t think they would put us in extreme risk,” he said. “I understand that around the league there have been some positive tests and they are trying to get ahead of that now so that when we are actually in the bubble, hopefully everything will be okay. I’m trying to be optimistic about it.”
VanVleet is the father of two small children. The earliest that family members can join NBA players in Orlando will be late August, after the first round of the playoffs.
“I will be there for a month or more before they are actually allowed to come. So I will have some sense of what it is like and how risky or dangerous it is,” VanVleet said. “I’ve been gone a week and I miss my kids already. I think that is the plan for my family. I will re-evaluate once I’ve been in Orlando for a little while.”
The Raptors will tip off on Aug. 1 against the Los Angeles Lakers – the first of their eight-game schedule that to help determine seeding before the playoffs begin Aug. 17.
Ujiri said the NBA will use its platform in Orlando to create awareness about the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the urgency for major change. The Raptors have also formed their own committee on the issue, while individual players are doing their own initiatives as well. He said Kyle Lowry, VanVleet and head coach Nick Nurse have been particularly active in the efforts.
“We’re going to tackle this matter, as hard as we can, because it’s so important to us, and the momentum is now,” Ujiri said.
VanVleet said that conversation is on the players’ minds every day.
“We’re doing work behind the scenes,” VanVleet said. “Not just for now because it’s cool on social media to post Black Lives Matter, but something that’s gonna last for years and years to come, for something that’s gonna make real change.”
ESPN reported that in place of players’ last names on their jerseys, they may choose instead to wear messages that promote social awareness. VanVleet said he wants to do his research and consult people he trusts before picking a message. He listed his step dad, his financial advisor and his high-school basketball coach, who also has a Masters degree in African-American studies, as three that he would reach out to.
VanVleet said he had some pause about playing amid the ongoing civil unrest about racism and police brutality.
“It sucks, man. It’s terrible timing. But that’s been 2020 for us. We all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand. Morally, yes, that makes sense. But life goes on,” he said. “We’re all young, Black guys. None of us want to give any money back. I don’t think that we should. I think that money can be used in a number of different ways.
“Our fight is long term. … I think most of us decided to play. It’s something we’ll have to live with. I trust that my heart’s in the right place and I’m doing enough to make change.”