The NBA will make its long-awaited return on Thursday with a doubleheader between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans, as well as the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, putting an end to the four-and-a-half-month hiatus that once put the 2019-2020 season on hold.
The league suspended its season on March 11 following Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test. Twenty-two teams were invited to the league’s bubble in Orlando, Fla. to finish out the season, with the NBA Finals ending no later than Oct. 12.
Two of the most prominent figures in the NBA with Hawaii ties will be present in the bubble, as Toronto Raptors general manager Bobby Webster and Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy have settled in. Both are also members of teams that are perceived to have a legitimate shot to win it all.
Webster, a 2002 ‘Iolani graduate, guided the Raptors to their first-ever NBA title last June. Heading into the NBA restart, they are currently 46-18 and are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The team returns most its championship core from last season, minus reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who departed for the Clippers. But the Raptors are currently at full strength and full health, leading many to pick the team as a dark horse championship contender.
Anyone who leaves the bubble on an unexcused basis is subject to a 10-day quarantine upon returning. But the strict rules have produced promising results, as there have been zero new positive COVID-19 cases within it. For Webster, life in the confined bubble has certainly been a memorable experience.
“The daily life, I think the best way to describe it for most people is kind of like a summer basketball camp or whatever sport you went to,” Webster told Kanoa Leahey and Jordan Helle on the Let’s Talk Sports Podcast. “You kind of went through the week and you couldn’t really leave the campus. You kind of had food and you can’t really leave the perimeter here. I think within your team, there’s a lot of hanging out but amongst teams, I think we’re all keeping our distance for a number of reasons.
“When the playoffs are going but you can imagine a team goes up 1-0 or you got a Game 7 and you walk downstairs and you gotta share an elevator with someone on the opposing team so there’s gonna be some funny encounters. The other one is people are gonna leave and teams are gonna lose and so you gotta watch that team leave the hotel and move out. I mean, there’s a lot of interesting social situations.”
Handy, who was a guard on the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team from 1993 to 1995, was an assistant coach on the Raptors staff during their title run during the 2018-2019 season. He’s now an assistant coach for the Lakers, who are currently 49-14 and the top seed in the Western Conference.
The Lakers have clinched their first playoff appearance since the 2012-2013 season, but the team has championship goals in mind. If the team were to reach the NBA Finals, it would be Handy’s sixth straight appearance in it.
“As a competitor, the only thing that you can ask for is the opportunity to compete, to win. And I think we have that with our team. There’s no guarantees but we try to put ourselves in the best position possible to compete for a championship and I felt like that’s what we were doing this year,” Handy told KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “(Los Angeles Lakers head coach) Frank Vogel is doing a great job of leading the guys, LeBron (James) is doing a great job of leading the guys on the floor, and everybody was just moving in the same direction so I know those guys will be chomping at the bit to hopefully pick up where we left off and again gives ourselves an opportunity to try to compete for a championship. That’s all we can ask for.”