'This was the NBA's moonshot': Inside the final days of the bubble

A band of brothers built inside the NBA bubble (3:16)

76ers' forward Matisse Thybulle chronicles the experiences and friendships built and deepened inside the Orlando bubble. (3:16)

INSIDE THE NBA'S BUBBLE, there is a pathway around the residences -- a nearly mile-long loop and a longer, 1.6-mile loop that encompasses the Coronado Springs resort, one of the Disney properties that has become a home away from home for the league.

During the NBA Finals, it hasn't been unusual to see LeBron James whiz by on a Cannondale bike he had shipped to the league's campus.

His Los Angeles Lakers teammate JaVale McGee also has his own bike, though at one point he needed some help from the resort staff.

"We had to blow up the tires for McGee. I had to go out and get a special air compressor tip because he had a special bike and we didn't have that," said Cathy Dunlap, the regional recreation proprietor for Coronado Springs.

When NBA officials worked with folks on the ground in Orlando, Florida, during the planning stages for the bubble, there was a central question, according to Dunlap: "What can we offer these guys for several months so they're not going crazy in their rooms?"

Various outdoor entertainment options were lined up. Fishing was a hit. Pickleball became a daily pastime for referees. Cornhole boards and oversize Connect Four games were placed by the pool. Perhaps the most popular activity throughout, however, has been bike riding.

"Our fleet has grown," Dunlap said, detailing how the resort beefed up its bicycle haul by bringing in 10-speed bikes from an outside vendor to have about 50 available to its temporary residents.

Coronado Springs converted its health club into a rental counter, where bikes -- typically carrying an $11 rental fee per day or $20 overnight for guests -- can be signed out free of charge. The outer pathway doubles as an exercise route for Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka and Miami Heat assistant general manager Adam Simon to get their daily sweat in.

Through the Denver Nuggets' playoff run, they would sign out a dozen bikes at a time and go on team rides. "I don't know if they would do it for conditioning or just to relax," Dunlap said.

When players' families arrived, the resort made sure there were baby seats available to rent. Dunlap estimated that most days 100 percent of the bikes were signed out -- leading to competition for resources.

One time, a bubble dweller thought it would be neat to outsmart the system by asking Dunlap to open the shop an hour early, before anyone else could arrive.

"When I went there at 9 a.m.," Dunlap recalled, "there were a bunch of people sitting in the lobby and they were like, 'You can't give this person a bike.'"

Why not?

"Because there were four people sitting there waiting for the bikes and we only had four bikes," Dunlap said. "Because the bikes would immediately go ... as soon as we would open."

For James, McGee and the Lakers, the peacefulness of an afternoon bike ride has been replaced by the urgency to close out the Heat in Friday's Game 5 of the NBA Finals (9 p.m. ET on ABC).

From the closing days of bubble life to the evolving protocols that have kept the league safe throughout, here are more unseen moments from inside the NBA's unique campus in central Florida.

-- Dave McMenamin

MORE: Everything that happened inside the NBA bubble

Meanwhile, in the NBA's other bubble ...

THE CAMPUS INSIDE the Walt Disney World Resort has always had two parts: the one housing the players, coaches and executives who are competing for a championship; and another that is even more out of sight.

That is where the ownership groups for both the Lakers and Heat -- as well as additional guests for each team -- have spent the past week during the NBA Finals.

At a hotel near Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, these two competing sides -- like the teams that also are sharing the bubble -- find themselves awkwardly close together for the duration of the series.

"It's beyond words," said Bernie Lee, the agent for Heat star Jimmy Butler. "I'm sitting and having lunch with [Miami president Pat Riley] and [general manager Andy Elisburg]," Lee said, "and 10 feet away from us is the entire Laker leadership."

Even if the representatives of both teams -- which also include owners Micky Arison (Miami) and Jeanie Buss (Los Angeles) -- wanted to get away from each other, they are unable.

Everyone has to go to the same ballroom each day to get tested for COVID-19. To eat lunch, they go to the same outdoor restaurant next to a beautiful pool rimmed by palm trees, sitting at tables a few feet apart.

And at night, there is only one operating restaurant -- an elegant steakhouse -- inside the hotel. Given that those staying here are unable to go elsewhere, it makes for an unusual co-mingling of two groups fighting for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

In addition to the team representatives -- who sit inside plexiglass booths about 50 feet away from the court, and a level above those sitting courtside -- family members of players are here sharing the same spaces.

So too have been several player agents and representatives -- ranging from Rich Paul (LeBron James and Anthony Davis), Bill Duffy (Goran Dragic), Jeff Schwartz (Tyler Herro), Tzvi Grossman (Kendrick Nunn) and Lee -- who were in attendance to see their clients play on the sport's biggest stage.

"It's not often you have two teams playing for a championship who have these kinds of relationships over a long time, plus are staying at the same hotel, and can't leave that hotel," Lee said.

"It's definitely interesting."

-- Tim Bontemps

The pesky protocols that have kept the bubble from bursting

WHEN IT WAS clear Bam Adebayo's neck strain would keep him from playing in Game 3 of the Finals, he went to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra with a request: He wanted to be listed as active.

Adebayo didn't ask because he hoped to leave the door open to play. He did so because if he was listed as inactive, the league's COVID-19 protocols would require him to wear a mask on the bench during the game.

Spoelstra obliged.

"We're in a damn bubble," Spoelstra said of the decision, needling the strict mandate. "You know, let's get everybody active."

It's those mask protocols -- as well as the regular testing, social distancing guidelines and quarantine periods -- that have, in part, helped the NBA season resume safely. Unlike the NFL, which has ongoing struggles with positive tests, a game has never been postponed in the bubble because of a positive result.

In June, the NBA's ambitious announcement that it would return to play amid a global pandemic was accompanied by 113 pages of safety protocols. Rules were specific and thorough. Masks and daily testing were required, of course, but also playing card decks had to be disposed of after every use, there would be no doubles pingpong -- only singles -- and sharing snorkels in the pool was prohibited.

But the enforcement of the more fastidious rules has ebbed and flowed over the past 3½ months. The rule book states that unless a person is walking alone outside, he or she needs to wear a mask. Still, most players go maskless when walking the outside paths on campus.

LeBron James almost never wears a mask on his bike rides. Masks are required indoors, but in a now-viral video of Jimmy Butler surprising Spoelstra in his college jersey, the All-Star and coach aren't wearing face coverings. The use of proximity monitors, which at one point was a prerequisite to enter an arena, has been enforced sporadically.

As the league barrels toward the end of what has been a largely successful science experiment, the requirements are tightening again -- and new rules are popping up. Now, almost every day, residents of the "bubble" -- including players, coaches, staff and reporters -- get an automated text message from the league. A 218 area code will pop up with messages such as:

"Carry an extra mask to be prepared, and remember to keep your mask on outdoors unless you're walking by yourself."

"Game 3 tonight! At the Arena, spectators must wear their mask at all times."

"Spending time on the Destino lawn or by the pool today? Remember to maintain six feet of distance, even when outside."

Ahead of the Finals, more rules were added to the arena protocol. Employees had previously been allowed to eat dinner in their seats in the arena. Just before tipoff on Oct. 4, an email was sent to bubble residents banning eating at AdventHealth Arena, citing the need for extra caution with additional family members, guests and league personnel on site.

And if an athletic trainer, coach or inactive player isn't wearing their mask properly during the game, league security will walk over to their huddle during a timeout and correct them.

It is the pesky rules that make the bubble possible. And several league executives have noted that players and coaches who have been eliminated and left the bubble have called and texted to say that they miss the safety of the campus.

Inside, they were largely protected from the threat of COVID-19. Outside, the virus rages on.

-- Malika Andrews

The couple that bubbles together ...

MEYERS LEONARD WENT from starting 49 games during the regular season to barely playing in the bubble -- he appeared in just three games in Orlando leading up to the Finals -- but he never doubted he would be ready whenever Erik Spoelstra called his number.

So when Bam Adebayo suffered a neck injury that would force the All-Star big man to miss Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals, Leonard got the nod -- with an extra boost from his wife, Elle, who is with him inside the bubble.

After two months apart, Leonard acknowledged that Elle's presence "put him at ease" once she arrived shortly after the second round began, when he was on the bench.

"Being able to come back to her," Leonard said, "just knowing that no matter what happened -- good practice, bad practice, we won, we lost, I'm in the rotation, out of the rotation -- none of that matters to her."

The isolation before being reunited on the Disney campus was tough on both Leonards.

"If you were to look at my FaceTime calls during that period of time, it would be a list of 'Meyers, Meyers, Meyers, Meyers,'" Elle said.

The Leonards have found their "new normal" -- Elle's words -- within the bubble during Miami's long playoff run. "It feels like we live here now," she said, adding that she appreciates the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association's efforts to ensure families are comfortable while away from home.

"My favorite part of bubble life has been getting to know the families and significant others of other players," Elle said. "And the events that NBPA or the NBA has put on to make us all closer. They've offered yoga. They've offered bingo nights, tie-dyeing.

"You would never do that in the regular season, so I very much appreciated that."

As the Heat prepare for Friday's must-win Game 5, both Meyers and Elle Leonard are intent on staying in the bubble as long as possible as Miami fights to extend the series. They haven't even started packing.

"We're here for the long haul," Elle said. "I know that. We're not packing, I'll tell you that much. ... It's going to be frantic [whenever the Finals end] because we're not packing.

"We're not putting anything out in the universe that says we're leaving early."

-- Nick Friedell

A 'one of a kind' experiment is nearly complete

For all the conversation of the 2020 NBA playoffs being a fanless experience, there are 38 player guests left on campus who will be invited to the lower bowl for Game 5. And there are 45 staying off campus who will have access to the upper deck at AdventHealth Arena, according to a league spokesman.

But there is one key individual tasked with the archiving of the entire endeavor.

Andy Thompson, the vice president of production for NBA Entertainment who has worked for the league for 33 years as a videographer and was the primary cameraman capturing behind-the-scenes footage in ESPN's "The Last Dance," is there to document the undertaking.

"This was going to be a one-of-a-kind thing. I call it, this was the NBA's moonshot," he said, "We've been to the moon several times -- a half a dozen times -- but the first one is always the most important one. Nobody cares about the second mission."

To do it, he has had to take a different tack in both storytelling and gathering material without breaking social distance protocols.

"There's no city to really get out and interview fans and shoot scenics and incorporate that into the storytelling," said Thompson, the uncle of Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson and the brother of Lakers broadcaster Mychal Thompson. "Here, it's just basketball. And it's just about what's going on between those lines."

He isn't in the familiar arenas he knows like the back of his hand from three decades of covering the sport.

"Every arena has its own little backdoors and ways in which you can find a way into a player's locker room or the weight room. Some players park their cars outside, and we can actually approach the players in the parking lot and get some shots of them walking in and talking, interviews. There is none of that here," Thompson said.

"The six-feet distancing is really difficult. The boundaries around the court are off limits. The players are pretty much off limits all the time," he continued. "So you have to be very, very creative with how you go about trying to carve out access and carve out a unique way in which you want to present the game."

Thompson, who won an Emmy for his role as the executive producer on "The Last Dance," knows that someday all the work will be appreciated by fans who couldn't be on hand.

"It's definitely going to be used in some kind of a long-form documentary, a series," he explained. "I don't know where or when. But to get it right is really important and it's really a lot of pressure. Because this can be duplicated, but it can't be replicated. And so we got to make sure that we cross every t and dot every i and make sure we get it right."

-- McMenamin