Rituals are power. In a game like basketball where the only thing controllable is the finite space of a body, and even then the forces exerted onto it can make haywire or render redundant the hundreds of hours of careful conditioning, the protections of repetition and rituals allow an extended mental safeguard — even the comfort in the myth of them — against the unknown.
So much of what is captivating about sports are the unexplainable variables — the curses, streaks and slumps, baseball’s hyper-specific universe of superstitions, basketball players catching the hot hand right until they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. It’s why ritual and sports are soulmates, albeit exhausted ones.
The infinite potential for athletic ceremonials, like rituals, are described in the book Sociology of North American Sport, by D. Stanley Eitzen and George H. Sage, as “standardized actions directed toward entreating or controlling the supernatural powers in regard to some particular situation.” When it comes to volume and specifics, “there is an almost infinite variety of rituals practiced in sport, since all athletes are free to ritualize any activity they consider important for successful performance.”
It has been proven that belief in good luck, activated through rituals around routine — talismans such as clothing and charms, verbal cues in the protective quiet of a pre-game team huddle — all increase performance. This is mainly because these rituals activate, in a sense, personal luck. In a research paper published by Lysann Damisch, Barbara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler of the University of Cologne for the Psychological Science, ‘Keep Your Fingers Crossed!: How Superstition Improves Performance,’ it was found that “good luck is related to concepts associated with self-efficacy, such as optimism, hope, and confidence.” This sense of activated luck before a “specific performance task,” like a game, “leads to heightened feelings of self-efficacy toward this task, which in turn leads to better performance.”
Michael Jordan wearing his UNC shorts under his uniform, LeBron James’s chalk toss, Rajon Rondo’s five showers on game day, and the compulsion by nearly every player to bounce the ball before a free throw are all practices intent on channeling luck in order to attract or control a favorable outcome. In the wider world, pre-Orlando, time and space could be dedicated to rituals that required them. Specific meals prepared just so, a haircut on game day, the actions individual players take in the hours padding either side of a game will have to take a hiatus or adapt to life in the bubble. Aside from stirring up luck and feelings of self-actualization, these rituals also help players guard against anxiety, stress, and nerves. Snatches of time taken and repositioned as small acts of ceremony.
A player who has formalized ritual by making it explicitly visual is P.J. Tucker, elevating tunnel dressing to the point of putting one’s psyche on display. Taking an entirely internal process — picking clothes out to walk the hundred or so steps from player entrance to locker room — and turning it into ceremony.
In light of new protocol that required players arrive to games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex “in uniform and warm-ups,” tunnel looks initially seemed effectively banned in the bubble. In large part this was due to logistics. Players can’t shower at arenas and locker space is limited, the emphasis is to be game-ready on arrival. Whether it was initial misinformation or the league adjusting its approach in order to hear out players and stay flexible, the official language now stands that players can arrive in “relaxed” items of clothing from their own wardrobes so long as it is “clean and neat in appearance”.
Tunnel looks, treated as high art by Tucker, Russell Westbrook, Kelly Oubre Jr. and others are mood made sartorial. They are players dressing the part as much as projecting. A look as intention — for personal performance, team reputation, even an extension of dialogue. Westbrook dressing as an official photographer with a safety vest that explicitly said so was as much a dig at Kevin Durant as an immaculate example of conceptual performance art. The point is to show an embossed or emboldened version of oneself, to leave little to the imagination. Even a look that seems second thought — sweats, loose layers, a mismatch of color — has a point to make. Comfort, appearing so casual like one can’t be bothered to dress for this team, this player, this match or moment, projects a kind of unflappable, impossible to duplicate ease. On the other end of the spectrum, dressing loud with color blocks or power clashing, removes any trace of anonymity going into a game.
For athletes like Tucker, this elevation went beyond honing style, it signified a different, entirely professional level of importance of the games themselves and by extension, the point he considered himself to be at in his career.
“Getting dressed at the hotel now will feel like an AAU tournament,” Tucker told ESPN’s Nick DePaula, in response to their initial report that tunnel dressing would cease in the bubble. “It’s [like] AAU Nationals, it’s the Nike Super Showcase and one of those [tournaments] that we used to play in back in the day. I’m not feeling it. It just doesn’t feel NBA to me.”
And before the end result comes the process itself. Setting intention via the act of choosing what to wear and why. It’s likely you’ve ritualized dressing at some point in life, choosing clothing like armour or camouflage for an event you were nervous for or adhered to a dress-code for a landmark moment in the life of someone you love.
“I think that takes away [from] originally what getting dressed was all about.” Tucker said on his approach to the act of dressing itself, “It wasn’t even about the tunnel walk, it was more about getting dressed up and going to work. To me, it’s like a mindset, getting dressed and getting ready to go to my game. It puts me in the mindset that I’m ready to work and helps me find my focus.”
Dressing for the tunnel can seem a frivolous facet of the game until, as it is with most things deemed less serious, the real depth and potential comes when the source of that levity is distilled down to all the different parts that tend to make the lightest things in life the most impactful. Now, players who choose to engage in tunnel looks will need to bring three changes of clothing to any given game. What they arrive in, uniforms for play, and clothes to travel back to their hotels and rooms in. Because of this, the ritual of dressing for the tunnel will gain another layer of deliberation in the bubble and tunnel looks may prove a needed outlet for the exertion of personal control in such an intensely regimented setting.
In some ways the NBA preemptively recognized the power of protecting its players psychic comforts. When restart plans began to take shape it was floated that team hardwood could be flown to Orlando to replicate some perception of home court. While the majority of the 20 courts that have ended up in the bubble are generic practice courts, and those that are team-specific were due to proximity to Orlando (the Heat and Magic courts) and availability (the otherwise inexplicability of the Pacers court, for example), the cost of transport, installation, and maintenance, is still justifiable against the price of asking athletes to sacrifice home — its comforts and sense of control — for months. It isn’t only for the sake of league-regulation familiarity, the gesture plays into morale, superstition and ultimately, performance.
In “Superstitions among basketball players”, a study by Hans G. Buhrmann and Maxwell K. Zaugg published by the Journal of Sport Behavior, it was shown that superstitious beliefs and rituals involving luck, such as what can be suggested in something like home court advantage, are demonstrated more frequently by “superior teams, as well as superior players within a team”. Even if they aren’t playing on their own courts, NBA practice courts will serve as a welcome stand-in for higher seeded teams and their players, who rely more heavily on rituals and their perceived outcome of luck. There are many reasons as to why but the strongest may be the simplest — these athletes are typically the most regimented, folding superstition into their routines, and have the most, competitively speaking, to lose.
Where the visual cue of familiar courts serves in keeping spirits light it does double duty in ritual. Players can ground themselves in woodgrain sourced with their benefit in mind. Take a moment of reprieve even in the strange, shining sea of courts set up side by side in a hotel ballroom, waiting on an inbound, a play to unfold, on what’s next. The kind of forward impulsion that’s entirely free of the stalling out the pandemic has made so pronounced and never-ending.
Revenue, too, responds better to players who are performing well given the current undeniable realities and their associated anxieties. However you feel about the restart, you’ll be watching to free your mind or ease it. To detect, as if it were possible, the inner workings of the bubble reflected on players faces or in how they’ll move across the floor. Broadcast numbers, in this hyper-specific case, will depend on the harder to pin emotional health of athletes as much as their physical well-being in the bubble. We want to see that the bubble’s been worth it. Psychic reprieve and performance, in this way, can translate directly to dollars. Like any ritual found to be effective, the results ripple out.
The Disney experiment is by no means a simple undertaking. It requires hundreds of people working around the clock behind the current cheery facade of players spending their time fishing and enjoying the player’s lounge or park amenities. It also requires a certain consistent suspension of disbelief. For players and for fans to buy in. To borrow from Disney, like Peter Pan’s Neverland or Dumbo clutching the magic feather, if we stop believing, if players grow uncomfortable, anxious or doubtful in the necessity to continue, then things come crashing down.
To this end it behooves the league to be an active, agile responder, even to player requests that seem light or nonessential. Players wanted access to barbers in the bubble and after a few weeks of room calls, there’s now a pop-up barbershop to house the 6 barbers vetted by the NBPA. Players keep their cuts fresh and gain a sense of routine, not to mention the cathartic experience of sitting down in a barber’s chair to talk or simply drift.
Rituals help in reducing anxiety and coping with stress and there has never been a season like this, nor has one faced such an accelerated push during the most pressurized point of its seasonal arc. Teams will clinch playoff positions, teams will be eliminated after fulfilling the organizational hurdles and personal sacrifices to get into the bubble. Players will be attempting to emulate the physical peaks their bodies would have achieved at this point, when things resume, in a normal season. Their minds will be expected to follow. Where certain habits will be impossible to fulfil in the bubble, the league can introduce avenues to new ones, as it did with the option of tunnel dressing. And where habits will shift after two weeks or two months, due to fatigue, disinterest, malaise, locational and emotional burnout, it can facilitate and help players to navigate smoother transitions through these natural dips and plateaus.
As time goes on and teams go home, the bubble will contract. There’ll be fewer players and their habits to account for but the stakes of play will be much higher, the stress and fatigue of the bubble greater too. If superstitions and rituals have been positively linked to athletes performing “better in various motor and cognitive tasks compared with participants for whom no such concept was activated” (Damisch, Stoberock and Mussweiler), a renewed attention to player’s ritualistic habits will be critical as playoffs narrow.
The bubble is primarily a means of entertainment, but for the players participating their typical coping methods and routines have been stripped away in order to provide it. Rituals are power, they provide a padding of control where there is none, a psychological bubble where belief can prove greater than reality. The Orlando bubble will have many lasting impacts, some impossible to recognize until the league is seasons past it. But the repercussions of how well the NBA can draw parallels between the bubble of external entertainment and its players own psychic comforts — one for promotion, the other to carefully nurture and shrewdly protect — will ripple out instantly, with a transcendental reach capable of touching everything.