The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world of sports like never before. With the cancellation of most, if not all, sports events worldwide, sporting organizations have responded with the concept of a “bubble” scenario—a sports dome cut off from the outside world wherein athletes, coaches, and personnel can continue to operate in their respective leagues in a supposedly safe and secluded location.
Following suit, the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) created its own bubble in Clark, Pampanga and, last October, restarted the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup, after it was suspended in March to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
With the tournament once again in full swing, former DLSU Green Archers Ryan Araña, Prince Rivero of the Rain-or-Shine Elasto Painters and JVee Casio of the Alaska Aces share what it is like to train and play in the PBA bubble.
A tricky preparation process
A bubble scenario is a very unique situation for everybody involved: one cannot simply prepare for something that has only been introduced to the world just a couple of months ago. For the players of the PBA, this was the first incarnation of the bubble on Philippine soil, which means preparations had to be even more calculated.
For Araña, mentally preparing for each game has been much tougher than the physical training, as there are numerous internal factors that are always taken into account. “‘Yung mga routine na ginagawa mo ‘pag may games at practice—mag-iiba talaga lahat. Kailangan rin namin ito ma-overcome. Isa rin ‘tong test as a professional basketball player kung paano mo maha-handle ‘yung situation mo dito sa [bubble],” Araña shares.
(The routines that we do in the games and at practice really change. We need to overcome this because how we will handle this situation will be another test for us as professional basketball players.)
On Rivero’s end, coming from a rookie’s perspective gives a unique outlook on one’s preparation for the bubble, as this will be his first season in the league. The sudden stoppage of action may have given him problems, but the Rain-or-Shine player is finding ways to cope with his present situation. He remarks, “Siyempre rookie ako, hindi ko naman basta-basta ma-instill siya (the coach’s system) nang agad-agad so may mga times na nalilito ako. That is why I ask questions to my coaches, to send me videos na I can watch and I can study just to help me cope with the things na hindi ko napagdaan nang normal.” While this method sometimes proves difficult, Rivero finds help in the hands-on involvement of his teammates in guiding rookies like himself.
(Since I’m a rookie, I can’t instill the coach’s system unto me just like that, which is why there are times that I get confused. That’s why I ask questions to my coaches, to send me videos that I can watch and study just to help me cope with with the things that I didn’t go through naturally.)
“Physically, I am getting there pero kailangan pa magtrabaho nang extra—little by little [and] step by step. It does not matter how little it is,” he adds.
(I need to work on it more.)
The ups and downs
As the bubble is isolated from the outside world, the players must make enormous sacrifices by leaving their friends and family behind to compete for the championship and provide a sense of normalcy for their respective fanbases. Considering that PBA games are normally spectated by die-hard supporters of their respective teams, an empty gymnasium filled with nothing but cameras, surrounded by unoccupied bleachers is an unusual experience for every athlete.
Casio imparts his mentality on his current experience. “Being away from the family is the hardest, and it is not easy. But you also have to think about the people who have done this stuff. We are grateful, and I am grateful na may ganitong opportunity ngayon na bibigay lang namin yung best namin dito,” he says.
(We are grateful and I am grateful that this opportunity has been given to us, and we just have to do our best while we are here.)
On the other hand, an empty gym is a silver lining for some players, as the screaming and clamor of some fans can distract and take away the focus of an opposing team. Araña comments, “Actually, pabor rin sa amin na walang fans, especially kung kalaban mo ‘yung teams na maraming fans like Ginebra. Kami talaga dito focused lang kami sa laro at sa practice.”
(Actually, it is also to our advantage that there are no fans present, especially if we are up against teams that have a large fanbase like Ginebra. Here, we are just focused on the games and on practice.)
The adjustments in playing in the bubble has more to do with the mental preparation than physical conditioning. It all boils down to the players themselves on how they take care of their mental well-being amid the separation from and longing for their family. For Rivero, he copes by sticking to his daily routine and only focusing on what is ahead, “I just stick to my everyday basis—wake up in the morning, fix my bed, pray, go to training, try to be as focused as possible and try not to think about so much stuff, about whatever is happening or whatever might happen.”
With your teammates and coaches the only people you see everyday, one of the benefits of the bubble setting is the opportunity for the development of team chemistry on and off the court. As Araña finds, the bubble has given him and his teammates the chance to get to know each other better. To him, it opens doors for rookies to acquaint themselves with the veterans, receive pointers on how to prolong their careers and understand how games flow in the association.
With the country having been deprived of Philippine basketball for the past seven months, the games in the bubble have been a breath of fresh air for basketball fans all around the nation. As the PBA continues their operations inside the bubble, fans around the world are all hoping for a safe and successful integration of the system, especially when players sacrifice and risk so much to revitalize the sporting world in these strange times.