The folks at Walt Disney World call it the happiest place on earth.
And so, the NBA decided to put that to the test and find out just how much happiness anyone can handle?
When the NBA bubble was born on July 9, excited NBA players landed in Orlando and took the bus ride to the sprawling Wide World Of Sports campus on the Disney property in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Excited? You bet. Not like preteens going to the Magic Kingdom, but like elite athletes who had been deprived from their life’s work for far too long.
The NBA shut down on March 11. The best athletes in the world were dormant for four months.
When they got to the bubble, they went through a few days of quarantine, then broke loose and began the business of returning the NBA to fans across the globe. It was a monstrous challenge for which the NBA is to be commended. They did it about as well as it can be done.
For the Mavericks, this process lasted 54 days. The first three weeks were for practicing, getting back into NBA shape and bonding with each other.
It started with videos of patio parties, socially distanced, of course. And it included songs that were belted out and put on the internet, no matter the embarrassment quotient.
Fishing in the local ponds and lakes provided a little diversion. So did Pickleball. As did Spikeball. And just hanging out with other young guys and being wild and crazy. Or as wild and crazy as one can get in a self-contained bubble.
The games came at the end of July and through mid-August. And that was good timing. The players were growing tired of the bubble, but now they had a reason to refocus.
And when those eight regular-season “seeding” games were done, the playoffs came and the Mavericks and 15 other teams had another new mission onto which they could latch themselves.
For the Mavericks it ended in a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. It was what you’d expect from a No. 2 seed against a No. 7 seed. But the Mavericks were playing with Mickey Mouse’s money by that point. Not many people had them making the playoffs this season, let alone pushing the powerful Clippers to six games.
So after 54 days, they headed home.
But when they returned to families and the offseason, they took with them unique memories of their “bubble life.”
While nobody wants to have a season like this again, being able to say that you lived through it is a story worth retelling.
The bonding process: Some of the stories we got during the early bubble days were priceless.
That can happen when NBA players are left with nobody to hang out with except each other and they don’t have some of the traditional lifestyle options to occupy their time.
So they played Pickleball. And Spikeball. And table tennis. And they fished. And the photos, captured expertly by Jason Chinnock, the Mavericks’ social-media liaison in the bubble, offered visual proof that the NBA players can actually catch a fish. But, as Luka Dončić said: “No alligators.”
And, of course, everything was competitive.
When asked who the best Spikeball player was, Tim Hardaway Jr. said: “Luka’s good at everything, geez. Luka’s really really good at Spikeball, and he doesn’t even play it that much.
“And I’d say the one (other) person that’s really good is J.J. (Barea) because he’s lower to the ground, I guess, and when you try to tap it off the net he can still get to it. And he’s still agile for his age. So it makes his life a lot easier.”
Agile for his age? Kind of a backhanded compliment, but Barea will take it.
Another thing Barea liked doing in the bubble was taking coach Rick Carlisle’s money on the golf course.
He and Seth Curry had occasional games with Carlisle and assistant coach Darrell Armstrong. And when Barea had a good day – as he often does on the golf course as a single-digit handicapper – he had no problem letting people know about it on social media or to whoever he ran into at the bubble.
“He’s a leader in the locker room,” Carlisle said of the veteran point guard. “He’s been ready to play at all times. And his golf game has improved, unfortunately for me and Darrell Armstrong, although Darrell and I did beat J.J. and Curry (on one occasion). I know Barea has been talking trash on radio shows. I’m getting a little tired of that.”
And, of course, there was the food. It wasn’t necessarily what you’d get at the foo-foo restaurant at the five-star hotels the teams stay at on the road. But there was lots of it and the players and coaches made the best of it.
“A lot of people have been complaining, but where I’m from, I think it’s good food, good living,” said Dorian Finney-Smith, leaning heavily on his humble nature. “So I can’t complain at all. (But my daughter), she thinks I’m having fun because I’m at Disney.”
Fun wasn’t the point of this NBA bubble. Everybody had a job to do. But, as LA Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said: “We’re trying to just live our life – have our best Disney life.”
Pressure index goes up: While everybody tried to ease into the bubble, when the seeding games began, the seriousness quickly was evident.
Playoff spots were up for grabs. And the Mavericks had visions of moving up from their No. 7 spot.
After all, they had two meetings with Phoenix among their eight seeding games.
The team that figured to have nothing to play for in the bubble finished as one of the biggest stories of the NBA’s restart. The Suns ripped off eight consecutive victories. Those losses made it a sure thing that the Mavericks would not rise from No. 7 in the Western Conference.
“Everybody here is playing for something,” Carlisle said.
The Mavericks went 3-5 in the seeding games. They weren’t exactly hitting on all cylinders going into the playoffs. But they had some legitimate mitigating circumstances.
They were locked into No. 7 for the last several games. It was more about staying as healthy as possible in those games rather than racking up wins.
What the Mavericks had working in their favor was the fact that offense was gold during the seeding games. Nearly every team was putting up monster offensive numbers.
For a team that finished the season with the most efficient offense in NBA history, that was a terrific sign.
Playoffs, baby: If you love the NBA, you always remember the iconic moments.
If you’re old enough, you see the old, grainy highlight of Dr. J going up and under the rim for that remarkable reverse layup. You reminisce about Michael Jordan raising up those palms after that hand-switcheroo in midair of the NBA finals.
And, you’ll always remember Luka Dončić stepping back to create a little space and then letting fly with a 27-foot 3-pointer that seemed to hang in the air for minutes before splashing through the net for a 135-133 overtime win in Game 4 against the Clippers.
It tied the series at 2-2 and would be the Mavericks’ last win of the 2019-20 season. It will be replayed for years to come. And it was a shot made more difficult by the fact that the score was not tied. Miss, and the Mavericks would lose and go down 3-1. Had it been a tie game, the pressure is decreased exponentially.
That it was a 3-pointer from way beyond the arc added to the degree of difficulty.
“The guy is never afraid of the moment,” said Barea. “He’s never going to shy away from it.”
It was the signature moment of the Mavericks’ stay in the bubble. And, maybe, the signature moment of the bubble, period.
A few years from now, people won’t remember the Mavericks’ playoff fate in 2020.
But they’ll remember the shot. It had been three long, hard seasons without a visit to the playoffs. But the return was punctuated with a moment frozen in time.
The bitter end: By the time Kristaps Porzingis was sidelined with a knee injury. By the time Luka Doncic had been hacked one too many times. And by the time Kawhi Leonard leaned on his playoff pedigree to will the Clippers to a Game 6 victory, the Mavericks were ready to head home.
We can only imagine what the teams that are going to be in the bubble another six weeks are going to be feeling when they get to the end. The Mavericks wanted to continue their season.
But when they couldn’t, going home to family and friends wasn’t a bad consolation.
And they left the NBA bubble knowing two things.
First, they hope they never have to repeat this exercise. Once was quite enough.
Second, they know they are destined to be bigger playoff forces in the seasons to come.
“The future? It looks great, man,” Barea said. “Any time you got one of the best players in the NBA that’s 21 years old and is the best player on your team, and he’s only going to get better – that’s the crazy thing to say.
“And you got a talent like KP behind him at a different position and they’re both young and hungry and I think the Mavericks, starting from Mark Cuban down, they do a great job of putting teams together.
“The future is bright and it’s going to be really good the next couple years.”
Maverick fans are counting on it.