'It's a bubble within a bubble': NBA players open up about road lockdown

ON A DECEMBER morning in 2005, the Miami Heat boarded the team bus at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. The team had arrived from Milwaukee late the previous night, and was scheduled to practice, then face off against the 76ers the following evening. But the bus took a detour. Rather than drive to the practice gym, the Heat soon arrived at a local movie theater.

"The next thing you know, we're eating popcorn, watching 'Glory Road,'" Udonis Haslem, who was in his third season with the Heat, told ESPN. "We needed a mental recharge."

Though the film wasn't scheduled for release until mid-January, Miami head coach and president Pat Riley arranged for a copy through his close friend Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the movie.

"Glory Road" tells the story of the 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team, which featured the first all-Black starting five in NCAA history. With limited resources while confronting virulent racism, the Miners (now UTEP) advanced to the NCAA championship, where they defeated an all-white Kentucky squad that included Riley.

"The movie had a lot of significance to us with its history," Haslem said. "It was also dope because they kicked Pat's ass, and we got to give him a little s--- about getting his ass kicked."

The surprise screening is among Haslem's favorite team-building outings during his 18-year career with the Heat. Six months later, Miami would go on to win its first title in franchise history, and that December day would be one of the reference points for the Heat's growth as a cohesive unit.

This season, that kind of excursion was already impossible. Teams were largely confined to hotels and, in some markets, not allowed to venture outside. On Jan. 12, protocols to combat the coronavirus grew even stricter -- no non-team guests in hotels, no leaving the hotel for non-team activities, no arriving at the arena more than three hours before tip.

Attempts to grow closer as a team are confronting a world in which proximity to teammates is both dangerous and prohibited. As a result, NBA players and staffs have been reduced to distant conversations through face masks, and a road life dominated by individual screens rather than collective camaraderie.