How The NBA’s Bubble Is Impacting The People Who Make The Gameday Experience Unforgettable

The return of the NBA inside the Disney World Bubble has offered a brief semblance of normalcy for basketball fans. The players are the same. The postseason format has not changed. The referees are still frustrating a different fanbase every night. And yet, this has been an entirely new viewing experience. Like everything else, normal isn’t exactly how things were before the global pandemic, but a version of it that tries its best to emulate what we once had.

As I watched the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics open their second round matchup last week, I started to track everything I missed from a normal basketball viewing experience while watching the game. This idea only served to prove my point almost too well.

I missed Kyle Lowry’s player intro, where he forces all of his teammates into exercise routines. I missed the obligatory “ref you suck” chant that would break out at Scotiabank Arena after consecutive foul calls against the home team in the first half of a playoff game. After a key basket, I expected the television broadcast to cut to thousands of fans cheering outside the arena at Jurassic Park. I even yearned to hear this very specific Flintstones “yabba dabba doo” sound effect the game operations team plays after every Fred VanVleet basket. Don’t tell Raptors fans this last one, but when they lost the first two games to start the series, I found myself missing the nervous energy inside the arena that would permeate whenever the playoffs got a bit too stressful.

This year has been many things, and we all have our own set of circumstances which have dictated just how much we’ve had to rearrange out day-to-day lives. We’re settling into this new reality while making sure to not get too comfortable, because we’re all holding on to hope that things will trend towards normalcy soon. Watching Bubble basketball on my television and counting all of the things that I missed, it’s hard not to think about the people essential to the gameday experience and how they’re adapting to things that have changed about their lives.

Back in late February, Jonathan Joubran — a business account executive who is part of the Raptors gameday interactive crew — was in a hurry to finish cleaning up at the arena after a Friday night loss to the Charlotte Hornets, since he had made plans with friends to hang out after the game. It would be the last time he stepped foot inside Scotiabank Arena before the season was suspended in early March.

“If I knew that would be our last game,” Joubran says, “I would have savored the moment as long as possible.”

Joubran’s main goal on gameday is to amp up the home crowd. He’s become known as “Flag Guy,” since he’s the one who will follow the players on the court when they come out of the tunnel at the start of warmups, waving a flag with a different slogan, whether it be “We The North” or “Let’s Go Raptors.”

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Joubran is also responsible for running a Lowry flag across the length of the court every time the Raptors point guard scores in a game, and remembers when Lowry scored 20 points in a fourth quarter comeback against the Dallas Mavericks earlier this season. “It was pretty great cardio,” he says, laughing.

Like everyone else, Joubran has been forced to watch this year’s Raptors playoff run from home. The league is playing in empty arenas without fans inside the Walt Disney campus. There are no fans to keep entertained and occupied. Joubran, like many others, was expecting the new experience of watching basketball to be extremely different. So far, he has been pleasantly surprised by how rarely he realizes the players are in an empty gym. “It’s not noticeable at all,” Joubran says. “The broadcasters have done a great job.”

While there are television analysts currently situated inside the Bubble, the majority of broadcasters are making it work from a remote location. This includes Jack Armstrong, who has been part of Raptors broadcasts for over 20 seasons.

Armstrong now works out of a remote studio in Oakville, Ontario, where he does have some experience setting up shop. A number of years ago, Armstrong did a series of remote broadcasts while Canada’s men’s national basketball team played in a qualifying tournament in Brazil.

“We did the game in the morning,” Armstrong says. “I was in the studio, and then I had a golf tournament in the afternoon. I drive my car up to the course, and a kid says to me, ‘How did you get here from Brazil?’ I said, ‘I’ll let you in on a little secret. I have a private jet.’”

Armstrong says his job remains very much the same, even if everything else is different. He still follows his routine of spending the hours leading up to tip-off pouring over his notes, reading and researching in order to provide fans with the most useful information during a broadcast. “My job is to inform and entertain,” Armstrong says.

What has been taken away, and the part Armstrong misses the most about his job, is the face-to-face interactions at the arena. Conversations with players and coaches before games are great, while scouts, referees, and media members can provide a tidbit that would be useful for the broadcast. As much a storyteller as he is an analyst, Armstrong admits it is an adjustment trying to call a game remotely, rather than seeing all the details unfold in front of you.

“I think people will have a greater appreciation of each other and the value of human relationships when we’re able to gradually come out of this,” Armstrong says. “As much as technology has helped our society grow, in other ways, it has put up walls and barriers. The only way it can be broken down is with person-to-person interactions, that human connection that sparks so many things.”

The announcers play a crucial role in putting familiar voices over the action for those sitting at home. But to give those playing some semblance of home court advantage (outside of having your own virtual fans and your team logo digitally imposed on the court), the league brought four DJs to the Bubble to assist with creating a familiar arena environment for each team.

A former Wisconsin Player of the Year and overseas pro basketball player, Shawna Nicols — a.k.a. DJ Shawna — has been DJing for 17 years. This season, Nicols became the official in-arena DJ for the Milwaukee Bucks. While players and coaches weighed the pros and cons of joining the Bubble, Nicols had no reservations about coming to the campus. She got the call from the NBA while quarantining at home in Milwaukee and not working.

“This is the best that I’ve felt [during the pandemic] in terms of having a purpose,” she says.

Nicols has worked at large sporting events and concerts, including at the Women’s Final Four and as an opener for Lizzo. The Bubble presented an entirely different challenge. Nicols would not only be providing a soundtrack at the arena without fans, but she also had to learn the musical preferences of players on 22 different teams at the Bubble. To prepare, she spoke with game directors from different teams. The helpful ones would pass along tips on what specific players liked to hear on game days. Nicols supplemented those tips with her own research, paying attention to songs and artists players were sharing to their social media feeds.

In the Bubble, Nicols’ job is about servicing the players. “You’re just looking to add value to their experience,” Nicols says. “I look for moments when players are dancing, vibing or just singing along. It’s cool just knowing you’re impacting them in a positive way.” Feedback can be difficult to come by — Nicols can sometimes see positive cues during warmups from where she is DJing, but the best feedback she received came after the Los Angeles Lakers eliminated the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round.

As LeBron James walked off the court, he heard “Smooth Operator” and broke into a full dance which quickly went viral. The song choice wasn’t a coincidence — Nicols had been studying James’ music taste on Instagram and knew he was a fan of Sade. When Chadwick Boseman passed away after a years-long battle with cancer, Nicols incorporated songs from the Black Panther soundtrack into her setlist. After the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic returned to the court following the players’ strike to play their rescheduled Game 5 of the first round, Nicols went with Childish Gambino’s “This is America” as the clock hit zero during warmups. A few days earlier, Nicols was going through her pregame playlist in the arena when she found out the Bucks weren’t going to take the floor. It’s a moment that has stayed with her.

“When they did not show up for warm ups,” Nicols says. “I had never been more proud to be part of the Bucks [organization].”

As Nichols works to add a familiar touch to the proceedings, vacancies on both baselines are decidedly unfamiliar. While watching The Last Dance, I couldn’t help but think about the photographers who helped capture all of Michael Jordan’s most iconic playoff moments. While highlight videos that flood our social media feeds during a game are nice, these lasting images help define the most important moments of every season. One of the people who followed Jordan’s career and is still shooting for the NBA is Nathaniel Butler, who arrived inside the Bubble near the end of the first round.

When the season was suspended in March, Butler had no idea if there would even be a postseason, let alone whether he should be shooting them. When we spoke, Butler was on his third day quarantining in his hotel room at Disney. Despite leaving just once a day to walk down to hall for a COVID-19 test, Butler focused on the positives, including an exercise bike in his room which was gifted by the recently-departed Brooklyn Nets.

Like Nicols, Butler didn’t mind having to deal with being cooped up in a hotel for a week. “I was jonesing to do it,” Butler says. “For better or worse, and mostly better, we’re all basketball junkies.”

For everyone who has been forced to change their day-to-day routine, and are now making adjustments to how they approach covering a basketball game, being able to be part of this new gameday experience makes them appreciate things even more, even if it’s in a limited capacity.

“It reinforces once again how much I love the game and how much I miss the game,” Armstrong says. “Hopefully, they find a vaccine, and little by little, we’re able to gradually come out of this.”

Seeing Butler’s playoff photos from inside the Bubble on my Instagram feed this past week has been a welcoming slice of normalcy. For now, that will have to do. Butler, like everyone else, wonders when things will return to as they were before, or if they will at all. For photographers, the lack of live sporting events and concerts means a significant decrease in potential work. That isn’t likely to change in the immediate future.

While the people involved in the NBA gameday experience are making it work for now, no one is really trying to think too far ahead.

“I genuinely don’t know what the new normal will be,” Butler says. “I don’t know what the future is going to hold. It’s a little unnerving for sure.”