On the Record with Ben Golliver: Working from Inside the Bubble in Orlando

October 13, 2020

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For this ‘On the Record’ Q&A, Matt Fox chats with Ben Golliver, National NBA Writer for the Washington Post, about his unique experience reporting from inside the basketball bubble in Orlando, Florida. The discussion also explores sports industry shifts on athletes speaking to social justice, working with PR professionals, and the future of newsrooms.

Note: This interview took place during the playoffs, a few weeks prior to The NBA Finals.

Matt Fox (MF): Can you walk me through the process for how this opportunity came together? What were your biggest concerns heading into the bubble?

Ben Golliver (BG): If you go back to March, we’re just sitting there missing basketball and thinking about how long this might drag out. Our paper essentially went away from independent sports and style sections because there wasn’t enough to write about. We were really scrambling – different writers were getting assigned to different beats – some even taking on sports temporarily. Everyone was really looking at their long-term job prospects and also worrying about what might happen if there’s no more games this season.

Pretty quickly I had put out the idea of a bubble and wrote a story a couple of days after the shutdown walking through how the NBA could pull it off based on what had just been done in China. Then we just sat around and waited for two months speculating on whether they would try to do it, how they might put it together – it was very nerve-wracking.

Once it finally started to come together, I was very apprehensive just because they’re playing indoors, and playing close contact seemed like pretty high-risk behavior. The big turning point was when they released the health and safety protocols – it was such an extensive document, and it was clear they had really put a lot of thought and energy into every aspect of life. That was able to put me at ease a little bit.

We understood pretty quickly that we were going to have a good shot at it as a national paper, as well as having a long track record of covering the league. The actual application process was pretty extensive – you had to fill out a lot of information for yourself and had to cover thousands of dollars for housing, testing, and food for up to 90-plus nights. You also had to make a commitment to be there for at least three months.

For me, thankfully I don’t have any children I’d have to worry about and I didn’t have any health issues with my parents that I needed to be tied up with, so it was a pretty easy decision. I think I would have been bummed if I wasn’t able to go, but at the same time, it was a real process just to get comfortable from a health standpoint because the fear back in April, May, June was really high. Florida was a major hot spot, along with the idea that if you’re going to have employees who come to the campus and leave the campus at night, that could add to the exposure risk.

So it definitely took a while but once you start going through the testing process and getting negative results back every single day, it really gives you a sense of security to feel taken care of and monitored to give you some structure. But it took a while for that to set in.

MF: Your social content has been really entertaining. How have you been passing the time and what’s the sense of community among the reporters and staff down there every day?

BG: [We’re always down] to the tightest possible package in terms of free time. I was able to go on a two-hour fishing expedition on a Saturday and squeeze in one haircut so far, but otherwise it’s just been nonstop basketball. We have up to four back-to-back games in any given day, and then we also have access to the postgame press conferences to all those players. You could have a day of interviews with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], LeBron [James], James Harden, Anthony Davis which just isn’t possible during a typical regular season or playoffs. Just one of those guys can provide material for a full story, so you wind up choosing which one of these superstar players is the story of the day or have multiple stories.

In playing seven days a week, the [NBA’s] goal is to get as much content on television as possible – as reporters, we just have to go along with that model. There hasn’t been much downtime, but typically I go for a walk for about an hour to an hour and a half every single day. There’s a little walking trail around our hotel property and I’ve seen Brad Stevens, Erik Spoelstra, Nick Nurse, Michael Malone, and a whole bunch of other NBA coaches. You’ll give them a head nod – it feels like a little bit of a community because you’ll see the same people out there every single day.

There’s definitely a comradery with the media, but everyone’s also working really hard. We’re encouraged to stay socially distant too – it’s not like we’re throwing pool parties every single night! But you see the same faces every day and there’s a lot of collegiality. Sometimes in the playoffs it can get to be high stress and there’s more tension between PR and reporters over access. I think here it’s been a little bit more relaxed – we all realize that we’re in it for the long haul. You get the access when you can – the players are going to be here and we’re going to get the time, so it’s maybe not as tense as it typically gets during the playoffs.

MF: What do you attribute to the success for how safe things have been throughout your time there?

Note: As of this posting, there were zero confirmed COVID-19 cases for all bubble attendees through the full duration of the schedule.   

It’s definitely the financial resources – testing more than 1,000 people per day for 90 straight days is extraordinarily expensive. The NBA made a very conscious decision to invest that money in the upfront, but they also put a lot of thought into the program. Money doesn’t get you to the end.

The league put in place daily monitoring – every morning we give them our temperature and fill out a questionnaire. If we have any symptoms and if anyone reports something, they immediately follow up on that. We also get tested every single day with the results back within 24 hours. That’s really big because if someone were to test positive, they would be able to limit how many people that person came into contact with because the testing is so rapid from a turnaround perspective.

They’re very strict with the rules. When you’re on campus, you have to wear a mask and stay socially distant. We even have these little buzzers that sound like smoke detectors if you get too close to other people. During interviews, they have it marked down on the ground where you can stand so that you don’t get too close to the players.

And ultimately they’re holding the players to those same rules too. You’re not going to see your favorite superstar walking around campus without a mask on. All the players have really bought in – they realize their paychecks really rely on this whole thing being successful. For the guys who really want to win titles, they have every reason to follow the rules because they want to have the opportunity to win. I think that’s been the most critical part of buy-in, but it’s definitely the finances. If they didn’t have the money and didn’t have the vision to spend the money wisely, we’d all in a very different spot.

MF: How has the pandemic changed the way that you interview athletes?

BG: The most obvious impact is that it’s taken us out of the locker room as well as giant media scrums. It’s a perfect contrast as right after Kobe Bryant’s death earlier this year, there was extraordinary media interest in talking to guys like LeBron [James] and the Lakers in the days following. So we would go to scrums where there would be almost 200 people. Sometimes there would be almost physical altercations for cameramen trying to get certain angles and everybody jockeying for position – it almost feels like a mosh pit. I always joke that in those situations, I’m bringing my sharp elbows, just in case you need to hold your ground.

It’s a much more relaxed environment now. At most, 10 people are in a post-game interview and we don’t ever visit the locker room because that would be a confined space. There’s also the virtual element – a lot of these questions are taken through a video screen. That takes away some of the personal nature of the interviews which is a little bit unfortunate, but most of these guys are so famous culturally and internationally that they had to make it work to bring in media from around the globe.

I would say it’s less personal, less intimate, smaller crowds. There’s still opportunities for one-on-one interviews which is good. I think the biggest question all the writers are weighing now is how many of these rules are going to stick once the pandemic passes. For a while being in the locker room was seen as a non-negotiable point, especially for the more traditional reporters. I think everyone wants to know when we’re going to be able to get back to a locker room, if ever.

MF: You’ve written a lot of social justice so far, given it’s become such an important topic around the league. Do you feel like players are more receptive to talking with you about it, recognizing not just the power of their platforms, but yours as well to provide new perspectives on what’s unfolding in society?

All the players who are really passionate about this came down to the bubble wanting to have a concerted effort to put their messages out. So you’re seeing coordinated statements about Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, George Floyd and many more.

There’s a lot of high-powered media entities here – they’re all covering this story in addition to the basketball story and also realize they have a lot of power to dictate what people are speaking about. You’ll see players start their interviews without answering basketball questions. In some cases, they refuse to answer basketball questions at all and just speak freely about what’s on their mind. Ultimately it’s newsworthy so we’re going to talk about it.

There’s discussions about how to best protest when you’re stuck inside the bubble. These kinds of things are very relatable to an average fan who feels like they can’t go outside because it’s not safe, but still feel very frustrated by a lot of these issues.

I think the players have done a really good job of speaking passionately about this while juggling other priorities. A lot of the credit goes to Chris Paul (President of the NBA Players Association and Oklahoma City Thunder guard) because he’s the one who led the players’ association in these negotiations. They were able to secure Black Lives Matter signage on the court, jerseys, t-shirts. Most importantly they were able to put together a $100 million foundation with NBA owners that’s going to provide funds to black communities over the next 10 years. Those are the steps that they’re making and they’re constantly looking for more.

Every time an event happens you can kind of feel the hopelessness on the players’ side. There’s that moment where it hits them hard, they take a step back and feel pain, and then the next day resolve comes back and they say, “Okay, now we’ve got to do more.” It’s a constant part of life down here.

MF: You’ve been pretty remote even before all this happened. Where do you see the pandemic shifting the landscape of traditional newsrooms?

BG: It’s been really hard for people who work regularly in the newsroom because that’s the only life they’ve ever known. It was a major adjustment for some of my colleagues and they were really missing the office environment. Not just the chit-chat and laughter, but also the collaborative planning aspect where you can just go over to somebody’s desk if you have an idea and bat it out in real time. You’ve got programs to help with those things, but it’s just not the same thing and I think everyone has to adjust.

For me, my life hasn’t really changed in that aspect except for that I didn’t really travel for the first three or four months of the pandemic. That was a major change because we basically stockpiled all non-essential travel to doing a lot more phone and video interviews.

In terms of my day-to-day life, most of my work takes place at the arena or at home – that’s still the case and I think it will continue going forward. In terms of when we get “back to normal”, we’re going to be fully remote at The [Washington] Post, at least through the end of the calendar year and perhaps longer. They’ve been pushing it out more aggressively than a lot of  media companies, more in sync with tech companies who have been leading the way on that.

Speaking from my experience, I think we’ve kind of adjusted to this environment. While people are still looking forward to being back in a newsroom, they’re not trying to rush it at all.

MF: What’s some of your favorite content you’ve been able to produce while in the bubble?

BG: First I was able to do a big profile of Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz center), essentially “patient zero” who shut down professional sports. He was very candid in how tough of an experience that was. He was caught on video touching all those microphones and being kind of careless right before everybody realized how rapidly the virus spread – that wound up giving him a lot of criticism. He still has COVID-related symptoms to this day and doesn’t have his sense of smell back. He’s very close to his mother and because she lives in France, they were not able see each other since he tested positive. He got pretty sick from a severity standpoint and it’s just hard to imagine being in that situation thousands of miles from the people you care about, and how difficult that would be especially when everyone is piling on you online. That was our preview story for the restart – he wound up scoring the first points in the bubble and hitting game-winning free throws in the bubble, so it really did come full circle there.

I did a story with Michelle Roberts, head of the NBA Players Association. She announced plans for a succession plan five days before the NBA shutdown, just coincidentally. She’s 63-years-old and was ready to retire – the coronavirus just pulled her back in like a mob movie. She’s been down here living and working with the players and plans to stay here through the duration. Now she has a big labor negotiation she’s preparing for as well because they’re trying to determine the framework for next season, which remains very much up in the air.

LeBron [James] has been very vocal – whether it’s been about Breonna Taylor, Black Lives Matter, Jacob Blake – the list goes on. I think his words carry more weight than anyone else in the league so to hear him refine his message is very powerful.

But I’ll be honest, it’s not about one specific story – it’s all a blur, like basketball in fast forward. When we think about getting back to normal down the road, the NBA season might feel slow after this. This is the most condensed, overwhelming version we’re ever going to get.

MF: Has your relationship changed at all with PR people on the brand side? Any stories you’ve been able to weave in more organically during this time?

BG: This is definitely a different environment because agents are not in the bubble, and team PR and player PR staffers are very limited. Pretty much every team has one PR contact per team. Some reporters call that friction in getting to your subject – I would say it’s been a more streamlined situation where it’s more about basketball rather than the outside world that other players are working on.

A great example – look at how players are dressing before games. They’re dressing in sweats, hanging out – people may sit courtside on their day off and watch the Lakers game. It’s a much more relaxed, put-together vibe versus the Staples Center where people are showing up with perfectly manicured outfits. There’s just been less of that presence because there’s no fans or crowd to cater to and also because guys are away from their families and stores where they’d go shopping for that stuff. They’re away from personal assistants, more or less on their own or just with the team. It’s been a much more basketball-focused environment.

There is this warping effect – if you hear from people outside the bubble, it’s almost always on the back burner because there’s always so much going on here. Our game is always dictated by when does LeBron [James] play next, when does the next game tip-off. If a company says they have a new store opening up in New York, it feels so far away from the bubble – especially right now. That’s something that I think will go back – we know how the NBA works, it’s much bigger than just the sport on the court. That will return, but right now it’s been a big adjustment.