The Portland Trail Blazers were arguably the most exciting team during the NBA’s seeding games at the Disney World bubble. Portland entered play in ninth place, trailing the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games with only eight contests to close the gap. The Blazers, led by star Damian Lillard, embraced this challenge: Lillard won Bubble MVP by averaging 37.6 points and 9.6 assists and helped his team earn a 6-2 record during the eight preliminary games.
While the bubble was mostly off-limits to in-person viewing, Sam Anderson of The New York Times was one of the few media members allowed in. As Blazer fan, he got an up-close look at the team’s exciting run, and detailed his experience in an article:
Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I run a set of numbers through my mind like prayer beads: 20, 23, 7, 8. This is the stat line (20 points, 23 rebounds, 7 assists, 8 blocks) of the N.B.A. legend Bill Walton in one of the most glorious games in basketball history: Game 6 of the 1977 N.B.A. Finals, when the underdog Portland Trail Blazers won their only championship ever — a holy moment in the franchise’s otherwise cursed history. I am originally from Oregon; the Blazers are my only sports love that has survived into adulthood. (One of my secret motivations in going to Orlando was to see them play in person.)
Anderson talked about how he was feeling after watching the Blazers’ thrilling win against the Dallas Mavericks from his hotel room:
I was so amped up that I couldn’t fall asleep. I just lay there in my overstuffed hotel bed, thinking about Lillard’s shot and Walton’s numbers, and sometime in the middle of the night I checked my phone to find that my Covid test results were in: Negative. I could go see basketball in person.
He then chronicles what it was like to be one of the few spectators allowed to view games in person, from hearing announcers try to amp up an empty crowd to feeling in a meditative state while watching James Harden dribble.
Anderson then reflects on the need for basketball in tumultuous times:
Part of me sees basketball as embarrassingly adolescent, a costly distraction — Exhibit A for the way societies prioritize exactly the wrong things. The hours of attention I pour every month into sports could be poured into activism, outreach, gardening, exercise, calling my congresspeople.
Another part of me, though, is not embarrassed at all. Sports, at its best, answers a deep human need. We are ravenous for meaning. We want to know that what we do matters, because lord knows there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Towards the end of his piece, he recounts what it was like to watch the intense play-in game between the Blazers and Grizzlies:
The game came down to the final minute, and Nurkic, looking exhausted, nevertheless threw himself all over the floor to grab loose balls, then sprinted back to score. I abandoned all pretext of objectivity and started screaming, leaping and flapping my arms around. The Blazers won by four. They had, impossibly, reached the playoffs.
There are many more interesting details and important reflections on basketball in the bubble in Anderson’s piece, which you should absolutely check out.