SAITAMA, Japan — Wake up. Take a coronavirus test. Go to an empty arena. Practice or play a game. Return to the hotel. FaceTime family and friends who they’ve been separated from for weeks. Watch other games on television. Sleep.
Such is the typical itinerary for basketball players at the Tokyo Olympics.
For those who were in the NBA and WNBA bubbles in Florida last summer, it seems familiar. That has no doubt played a role in both U.S. basketball teams reaching the Olympic semifinals.
There are clear similarities between what basketball players are having to endure at these Tokyo Olympics and what went on last summer for NBA players in Lake Buena Vista, Florida and WNBA players in Bradenton, Florida. The days have seemed a bit monotonous, there’s separation from loved ones and there’s hardly anyone in the buildings to cheer for them.
“The bubble was brutal,” said France guard Evan Fournier, who played in the NBA’s bubble with the Orlando Magic. “It was, it really was.”
The Olympics, in Fournier’s estimation, aren’t quite as difficult as the bubble was. The rules in Tokyo designed to keep everyone safe are restrictive, yes. But Fournier said there are at least some opportunities to see other athletes, whether it was through taking part in the opening ceremony and then going to the Olympic village or simply by being able to get away from basketball by tuning into something else on television.
U.S. women’s player Breanna Stewart said the flashbacks to last summer are only natural to have.
“This is even more because we are in a foreign country,” Stewart said. “We go to the hotel, the practice gym, the arena and we’ve gone to the village a couple of times. We’re not getting out and we don’t have areas to just chill outside. That’s one thing that is unique to the Olympics, spending time inside cooped up.”
Stewart and the U.S. women have had familiar faces at some of their games at the Olympics. Those faces belong to the U.S. men, who have sent contingents to the arena to watch their fellow Americans on off days.
Typically at an Olympics, the NBA stars pop into some of the other big events — like swimming, track and field, gymnastics — whenever possible. It creates a stir, a buzz in the crowd and even the athletes in those sports have said it’s a big deal to have some of the best-known players in the world in attendance.
In Tokyo, that’s just not an option.
“The restrictions don’t allow us to do that,” Durant said. “That was the fun part about the last few Olympics, is that we could go out and support other athletes, watch other sports that we probably never get a chance to watch, take in the whole Olympic experience. But again, it’s somewhat of a bubble and we can’t do that.”
Even without a bubble, at least not the same sort that the NBA and WNBA players had last summer, the restrictions in place this summer likely deterred some from coming to the Olympics. There are undoubtedly other factors on that front: the NBA, for example, saw its 2019-20 season resume in July 2020, go through October, resume in December and some players haven’t gotten much of a break since — which will be a talking point when NBA training camps start up again next month.
“If you put it frankly, it kind of sucks,” Australia guard Joe Ingles said.
Put simply, nothing has been easy. And sometimes, it doesn’t seem fun. It can appear to be light-hearted at times — U.S. men’s coach Gregg Popovich is a well-known wine connoisseur, and getting wine into the famous staff dinners has been more of a challenge than usual, for example — but it’s a clear grind.
“A lot of them called me and wanted to play and then later, for whatever reason, said, ‘Hmm, I’m not so sure,’” USA Basketball men’s national team managing director Jerry Colangelo said. “I can understand it. I mean, there’s a lot of things going on. We’ve had to adjust, I mean, how would you like to get a group of guys coming to Japan and tell them they’re going to be in another bubble, basically, because that’s the way it is. That’s really challenging.”
Yet when the winners get their gold medals this coming weekend, it’ll all seem worth the trouble.
“We still get to do what we’re here for,” Ingles said.