From behind two inches of plexiglass, a cloth mask covering his face and NBA basketball playing out before his eyes, Adam Silver felt a wave of emotion wash over him. It had been more than four months since the COVID-19 pandemic shut the league down, when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive in Oklahoma City, bringing the game to a screeching halt. Everything that followed—the countless conversations with epidemiologists, the painstaking negotiations with the players union, the barrage of criticism from those who questioned the ethics of a sports league running thousands of rapid-response tests when the surrounding communities struggled to get just one—had led to this, a socially distanced seat for the NBA’s reopener, Lakers-Clippers, an L.A. rivalry in central Florida, a marquee event playing out in front of 300 or so virtual fans. “It was a bit overwhelming to see,” Silver told Sports Illustrated. “To see our players together playing basketball, that what we had worked through over many months on paper, on our computer screens, had come to life, I’d say it was moving to me.”
The NBA bubble isn’t really a bubble. It’s a quarantined environment spread out over four hotels and three arenas, with some 1,500 people moving around in it. It isn’t cheap—the total cost will be around $170 million—but it has worked. As baseball struggles to keep teams healthy and college football crumbles, the NBA restart is humming along. Players, initially leery of a lockdown, have settled into routines. “I really worried about it potentially feeling a little bit like an armed camp,” says Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBPA. “I’ve found that our players are able to relax. I’m very impressed with the work that everyone’s done to create this thing.”
A few weeks into the restart, Silver spoke to Sports Illustrated about the most challenging season in history.