Bubbleball, the new book from Washington Post NBA writer Ben Golliver, takes you inside last year’s NBA bubble and offers an unprecedented look at an unprecedented season.
The 2019-20 NBA season was the longest and strangest in league history. Interrupted by a months-long hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it eventually concluded up at Disney World, where the league set up an unprecedented “bubble” in the hopes of keeping players safe, almost a year after it began. A small number of reporters were invited to the Disney bubble, among them The Washington Post’s Ben Golliver. Now appearing is Golliver’s debut book Bubbleball, which looks at the strange saga of the 2019-20 season — its suspension and unlikely conclusion — providing insight into what life was like inside the bubble, how the NBA managed to make it all work, and how the Lakers went on to win it all.
Bubbleball is at its best when it presents what life was like on the Disney campus, an experience that only a few hundred people could give a full account of. Golliver writes about some of the logistics of it, such as the massive shipping depot which handled around 700 packages a day and “better reflected the wealth standard of the NBA community” than anything else on campus. He also captures the strangeness of watching an NBA game with less than 200 people in the building, lending every contest a bit of an “eerie” feeling. Yet despite this, he also writes there was also something “sublime” about being able to witness games in this environment, saying “I felt like I was getting private access to the Guggenheim or the Sydney Opera House night after night.”
Bubbleball details the comprehensive health and safety protocols the NBA used to keep everyone safe
Also fascinating is the inside look at the measures taken by the NBA in order to assure that the bubble remained free of COVID-19. Golliver writes of his own ambivalence about the situation — the difficulty of balancing the tedium of isolation with the knowledge that there was hardly anywhere safer one could be. He refers to life on the campus as “dystopian,” while also acknowledging that those same “Big Brother elements… represented a public health utopia.”
Every morning Golliver’s day began with him taking his temperature and a blood oxygen reading. He then put that data into the NBA’s MyHealth app and answered a questionnaire about possible COVID symptoms before walking to get tested. He writes that, with everything so heavily monitored in the bubble, he “became more afraid of accidentally breaking the rules than of the coronavirus.”
In other moments, the book is appealing less for the information it offers than for the perspective it is offered from. For example, while there are not many new details offered about the players’ strike initiated by the Bucks, Golliver does a great job of capturing the moment itself. He writes of the confusion that filled the arena as the Bucks failed to take the floor, the anticipation for clarification that he and his colleagues felt while waiting outside their locker room, and the uncertainty that hung over everything while the season appeared to be in jeopardy. While there is not much to be learned necessarily in this account, readers will gain a new vantage point that will nevertheless enhance their understanding of this event.
Much of the book’s latter sections are devoted to the 2020 playoffs themselves. The postseason is a very important part of this narrative, though not often the most engaging part. Readers will receive first-hand accounts of the bubble’s biggest on-court moments from the immediately iconic buzzer-beaters by Luka Doncic, OG Anunoby, and Anthony Davis to the Nuggets coming back from 3-1 deficits in consecutive series. Golliver is able to capture the thrills of these moments firsthand and it is often fun to relive them, but these recaps take up the majority of the book and they come to feel overlong.
The 2019-20 season just ended less than eight months ago, which means that, for many readers, the games Golliver writes about will still be fresh in their minds. For those who just watched these playoff battles last fall, there’s not enough new insight to make reading about the games themselves very interesting. It’s easy to imagine these sections feeling much more essential in years to come as last year’s playoffs recede from memory. In the future, fans curious about just how the 2020 postseason unfolded will find a great account of how the Clippers and Bucks unexpectedly fell early and how the Heat became the unlikely Eastern Conference champions in Bubbleball. But for now, it seems a little unnecessary.
Bubbleball is a valuable book for everyone curious about just how the NBA managed to stage a safe conclusion to the 2019-20 NBA season in the midst of a global pandemic and what life was like in that isolated Disney bubble. Though the book is dragged down by too many game recaps, it’s sure to be appreciated by the vast majority of NBA fans. Where else are you going to get stories about referees gathering to play “pickleball,” with Scott Foster predictably appointing himself the “commissioner” of the proceedings? Golliver’s debut helps fans feel as if they were in the bubble themselves, but without them having to spend three months in isolation first.