During a conference call with reporters shortly after the Chicago Bulls' 2019-20 season ended abruptly last month, executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas expressed both concern about his new team facing a near nine-month layoff between games and confidence that the NBA would find a way for the eight teams not invited to Orlando, Fla., to participate in some sort of basketball activities.
That idea began to take shape last week, when reports surfaced that the league was in advanced considerations about creating a "second bubble" in Chicago for those eight teams, with Wintrust Arena emerging as the favorite to host the event because it is connected to a hotel. It would allow the teams left out of the league's official restart to create a summer-league-style environment with training camps and scrimmages against other teams.
While some teams may have wanted to host training camps or practices in their own cities, National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said during a conference call with reporters last month that any activity would have to follow the same protocols as the restart, which got underway last week as teams began arriving in Orlando. How smoothly that operation goes likely will have an impact on whether a second bubble gets off the ground.
While it is worth keeping a close eye on how things play out in Orlando - especially as Florida has blossomed into a hot spot for the coronavirus - the NBA does have other examples to draw conclusions from.
The National Women's Soccer League, which is playing a tournament on a restricted campus in Utah, provides the most encouragement. In conditions similar to the proposed bubble in Chicago, the NWSL welcomed eight teams, including the Chicago Red Stars, to just outside of Salt Lake City for about a month of play.
Although the Orlando Pride had to withdraw from the tournament because of multiple COVID-19 cases before leaving for Utah, the league has not seen any new positive tests since teams started play June 27.
"Not being in a bubble adds some elements of challenges," said Dr. George Chiampas, chief medical officer for U.S. Soccer and an assistant professor of emergency and sports medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who also served on the medical task force for the NWSL bubble.
"We're a big country. Across the country, different things are happening across different regions, and week to week that changes. What the bubble tries to offer you is to try to create the safest environment for all stakeholders in the league, and that's based on what's going on across the country. At this time, that may be the safest thing."
Getting players into the bubble safely is where leagues have run into issues, and plenty of red flags are scattered along the road as sports attempt to return in a country that does not have the virus under control. Several NBA teams were forced to shut down practice facilities before arriving in Florida, and the league announced 25 of 351 players (7.1%) tested positive in the period from June 23 to June 29.
But some players and coaches have reported feeling safe within the isolated environment. The Toronto Raptors arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., a few weeks ago as the league's lone team from outside the United States to avoid stricter travel restrictions in Canada and have yet to report any issues with the virus.
If the teams left out of Orlando are going to get on the court in some capacity, creating an isolated environment seems to be the best strategy.
"A lot of frontline workers and health care providers will not get tested to the level that the professional athletes will get tested," Chiampas said. "So you can say that it's safer. And it's definitely safer with testing, with a culture of everyone having access to hand sanitizer, everyone wearing masks. That would be the safest environment (rather) than what we're currently having in our public."
Chicago, which was also a finalist to be a host city for the NHL playoffs, makes logistical sense for a few reasons.
It hosted the NBA All-Star Game in February, with some of the events taking place at Wintrust Arena, so the league already has an idea of the security and logistical measures required to put on a large event there.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot has issued an emergency travel order that directs travelers from states experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases to self-quarantine for 14 days, but Lightfoot's office has been in contact with the NBA and is in favor of hosting the event.
"Based on discussions that the mayor has held with NBA officials and our knowledge of the NBA's engagement with its players and the union, the Lightfoot administration believes that the NBA has a very thoughtful and 'public health first' approach to resuming play," Anel Ruiz, the mayor's press secretary, said in a statement.
"We welcome the opportunity to host because the NBA's values and approach aligns with the city's cautious approach to reopening. Chicago is a sports town, loves basketball and it would be an honor to host this or any other NBA event."
But the main reason Chicago emerged as a potential host city is because the city and state had been one of the places in the country keeping the virus under control. Remember, however, that the same was true of Orlando and Florida when the league initially considered those sites.
Meanwhile, Illinois has seen an uptick in cases in recent days, registering a third straight day of more than 1,000 confirmed new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, the first time the state had done so since May.
"Everything's a moving target," Chiampas said. "We had 1,000 coronavirus cases; it's the highest we've seen in at least five to six weeks. As we're looking at that, I'm sure the league is looking at it, I'm sure the players are looking at it, so those are the challenges. You're trying to pick a location, but you're trying to project what it's going to look like four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks from now."
While there are more than a few hurdles to clear for a second bubble to become a reality in Chicago or elsewhere, there are several reasons the Bulls could benefit from getting back on the court in some capacity.
As with the restart in Orlando, there are certain to be players who would opt out of playing to be with their families, but players also like to play. Some would welcome the chance to get back on the court after such an extended absence. The Bulls have one of the youngest teams in the league and a roster that doesn't have much experience playing together, especially after being ravaged by injuries this past season.
And getting to see his team in action could be beneficial for Karnisovas and his new front office, who have stressed the importance of evaluating various aspects of the team in person, including the future of coach Jim Boylen.
"Eight teams is a huge part of our league, and I think the league's interest is to support those teams as well as they can," Karnisovas said in his end-of-season conference call with reporters June 6. "The proposed structure of some practices and some scrimmages that we would like to see this summer, I think it's not too much to ask. I think we will get support from the league based on that."
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