For Lakers support staff, the bubble has been a frantic, collaborative effort
Andrew Henk unloads bags in the makeshift locker room at The Arena prior to the Lakers’ first game against the Clippers. (Alison Bogli, Lakers)
Head athletic trainer Nina Hsieh works during a practice at the Coronado Springs resort in a converted ballroom. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
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Staffers including Rob Pelinka, Miles Simon, Jon Ishop, Andrew Henk, Quentin Crawford and Judy Seto unload a bus full of packages and equipment at the Gran Destino hotel. (Alison Bogli, Lakers)
Dr Judy Seto, the Lakers director of sports performance, has been a key figure for the team in logistics, and helped work on the health protocols that formed the basis of the bubble. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
Assistant strength coaches Chattin Hill (left) and Ed Streit are on towel duty at a Lakers practice. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
Head athletic trainer Nina Hsieh helps at a practice at the Coronado Springs resort in a converted ballroom. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
Chattin Hill directing JR Smith through a workout in one of the improvised Coronado Springs Resort ballrooms that have been filled with weights and equipment. The Lakers also outfitted their own auxiliary weight room in the team hotel at the Gran Destino. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
Assistant strength coach Ed Streit enjoys a Lakers practice. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
Athletic trainer Mike Mancias wipes up the floor at a practice at a converted Coronado Springs Resort ballroom. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
Andrew Henk, equipment manager, gets footwear ready for Lakers inside the NBA bubble. (Rohan Ali, Lakers)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. >> Thirty-six hours into her quarantine, Nina Hsieh couldn’t wait to bolt out her hotel room door.
The head athletic trainer for the Lakers paced as she saw the messages from her colleague who were already out of their rooms, dashing through the sweltering Florida humidity to a warehouse that held almost everything they would need for the next three months. They had to bring all the equipment over in flatbed carts back to the Gran Destino to start constructing improvised weight rooms and training facilities that would last them hopefully through an NBA championship run unlike any other.
Their first practice would be in hours. Players including LeBron James and Anthony Davis would need taping and treatment before taking the court. With a skeleton crew staff and a tight schedule, every minute counted, and Hsieh — who has worked in the organization for the last 12 years — was crawling up her walls.
“I know I was still stuck in my room and couldn’t do anything,” she said. “I think you’re still kind of anxious of what’s gonna fit where and what if certain things don’t fit the way they work out in your mind.”
Little about 2020 has worked out as envisioned — and the bubble at Walt Disney World Resort has been the NBA’s way to adapt. But to lower the risk, health experts recommended limiting the number of people who participate. Teams were told they’d need strict caps on the number of people they could send: Just 35, which includes players, coaches and staff.
For the Lakers, it means their equipment manager must find a way to move a bus full of duffel bags stuffed with socks, shoes, jerseys and all manner of odds and ends back and forth from arenas without an assistant. It means their security guard and strength coaches run to a convention center ballroom to pick up packages and deliver them. It means their director of sports performance helps plan everything from when they get meals catered to when they get housekeeping services.
General manager Rob Pelinka started the year swinging one of the biggest trades of the offseason for Anthony Davis and signing contracts for a team that would go on to be the West’s No. 1 seed. In the bubble, he’s a rebounder and occasionally a waterboy. His employees have watched him mop up sweat on the court at practices.
“There’s no task that’s too low that we can’t come in and help,” Pelinka said. “Especially when it comes to our players and their safety and servicing their needs.”
It’s who the Lakers believe they are. But in the bubble, it’s also an absolute necessity.
“We’re all now essentially a man-and-a-half,” Hsieh said. “Everybody’s gotta pick up that extra half a person here, half a person there that’s missing.”
On the day of the Lakers’ first scrimmage at Visa Athletic Center, Andrew Henk did something he never does at Staples Center: He arrived as the same time as the players.
For a team equipment manager, there is no worse nightmare. The initial protocols designed by the NBA limited the window in which teams could arrive, and Henk found himself in charge of bringing nearly two dozen duffel bags of equipment — all the team’s uniforms, shoes, socks and all manner of equipment — into the arena. The critical piece of his job is preparation: Even on road trips, he can set up the night before, and lay uniforms and mesh bags with uniform components and shoes out at individual lockers when players come in.
From a purely material perspective, no one on staff faces a challenge like Henk, who is in his first full year as equipment manager for the team. He has a room filled with black duffel bags, which have all the fresh tights, socks, sleeves and other equipment players require for the coming months. He is in charge of team laundry, which takes hours at a time in a complex with a seemingly unending row of washers and dryers. He’s in charge of running deliveries from the mailing ballroom to the hotel.
Henk knew the hours would be long and the challenge would be great since the Lakers first told him that his staff would be squeezed in favor of medical emphasis. Henk’s assistants can order or send him packages from Los Angeles, but that’s about all they can do.
“It was like, ‘When am I gonna sleep? When is there gonna be a break?’” Henk said. “And you know, just my mind really never turns off, because as soon as one day ends and is completed, I start thinking about the next day.”
Game days are the most stressful: If the Lakers shoot around in the morning, there can be as much as five sets of dirty laundry that need to be washed the next day for 17 players. The NBA has a small army of team attendants who help unload the bus and serve as ball boys, wipe the floors, scoop ice bags and run towels. But health protocols dictate they can’t actually hand anything directly to a player — only members of the traveling party can literally hand over things.
Henk, like a lot of people in the travel party, also rebounds during practice. When the Lakers scrimmage among themselves, he runs the shot clock.
While the organization knew they would have to short-staff team equipment, they’ve tried to be mindful and helpful. Frank Vogel has deputized all of his coaches as “assistant equipment managers” to carry bags and help out in games to stock towels and water bottles to players on a social distanced bench. Other staff members help out on deliveries, running down to the warehouse with golf carts. The NBA has helped by allowing staff to come to locker rooms earlier than players so they can set up sooner.
Downtime is precious: When Henk throws in a load of the team laundry in an improvised batting cage at the ESPN Wide World of Sports baseball field, he’ll plug in his headphones and run laps around the diamond for a workout: “It’s really just one thing after another,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, Dr. Judy Seto needed a reference — the Lakers’ director of sports performance couldn’t remember all the jobs off the top of her head that she’s been assigned since the NBA hiatus hit on March 11.
As she scanned her records, she paused to respond to an urgent text — the kind she gets all day long. Messages from the NBA, from the Lakers’ staffers back in L.A., from people on the campus itself. Seto is one of the most even-keeled staffers in the Lakers’ camp, entrusted as the day-to-day planner in addition to the chief medical person on site — in many ways, the brain of the Lakers’ support operation. She has a well-practiced bedside manner, but here, she allowed herself a rare whiff of weariness.
“Sometimes,” she said. “I think my phone gets tired.”
In the last four-and-a-half months alone, Seto has earned five new titles, all created and necessitated by the pandemic, to carry responsibilities beyond her role overseeing the medical care and performance of every player. That includes Facilities Hygiene Officer, Restart Coordinator, Logistics Manager, Campus Health Officer and Mental Health Point of Contact. This has made her an inflection point for all kinds of logistical elements, from the scheduling of facilities time and oversight of cleaning back in May when individual workouts started, to now scheduling daily coronavirus testing in the bubble.
Since the bubble isn’t like normal road trips, the Lakers left their manager of travel operations, Josh Ingram, at home. But Seto works with Ingram often, and also coordinates with the team’s player services personnel to make sure everything from meals to housekeeping gets done on time.
Seto has done some of the most mental labor of the Lakers’ organization in the last few months: She worked with the NBA and infectious disease experts to help develop the 113-page memo that has become the foundation of the bubble. While the NBA’s outward face was near-silence for months, many of the league’s medical minds were on conference calls behind closed doors, revising plans and drafts, getting up to date on the latest science of COVID-19.
Even for small steps like individual workouts, the Lakers and every other NBA team had to open facilities in phases with strict cleaning and isolating procedures. Some teams like Denver never made it all the way through the phases, shutting down facilities after positive tests. While progressing to this point of the restart may look like a steady march, nothing has ever felt assured, even by the long hours Seto and hundreds of others put into creating guidelines.
“People didn’t see behind the curtain what it took to even start these scrimmages. We’re about to start our seeding games pretty soon, and just to make those happen and get to this point took a lot of work. And it’s going to continue to take a lot of work.”
The memo’s release drew some snickers for its specificity, such as the proper procedures to clean a ball. But this was not a joke to everyone: Henk remembers what a pain it was to clean a full rack of balls after every workout with detergent, water and sanitizer, then leave them outside in the parking lot to dry so they wouldn’t drip onto the court.
For Henk and other hands-on staff members, they were simply happy to get back to work. The Lakers were coming up on one of their longer East Coast road trips when the hiatus struck on. As much as working nonstop in the bubble has been a grind, it beats not working at all.
“That was so weird, because obviously this job is a million miles an hour, one thing after another,” Henk said. “Then the NBA goes on a hiatus, and it was just literally nothing after that.”
What do you pack for a three-month trip? Everything.
What they don’t normally bring themselves, NBA teams like the Lakers often get from the home team when they’re on the road. Trainers especially raid opposing store rooms for common things like tape or the lubricant that goes between pads on every ankle. But most of that equipment had to be brought with them, packed in a truck and shipped to Florida on 16 (give or take) pallets.
Many of the items were packed by month they’ll be needed, Hsieh said, as the Lakers hope for a long playoff run. When she finally got out of quarantine, she sorted out the things she needed right away — like massage tables and wraps — from what she’ll need in October (as she described this set-up, Hsieh knocked on wood).
Creating the inventory involved a lot of math on a trip much longer than the Lakers ever pack for, multiplying the demands of one game for a projected run to the Finals, plus practices. The Lakers’ stash includes a ludicrous amount of common items, such as two 1,000-unit packages of ice bags. They hand-scooped Vaseline for skin wraps into large tubs that they packed. Then there’s things they probably won’t even need all of, like two large vats of ultrasound gel.
“I think at that point we were starting to throw stuff into the boxes,” Hsieh said, laughing. “We probably won’t even go through one.”
If the training staff packed heavy, the strength staff packed lean. Chattin Hill and Ed Streit are the two assistant strength coaches under Gunnar Peterson, who remained in Los Angeles. While Peterson remains on call to consult, Hill and Streit were charged with running a weight room on the “strength coach floor” of the Gran Destino where all teams have their personal facilities.
When they got out of quarantine, the duo had to put together a full squat rack — “Luckily Ed is pretty handy,” Hill said — and within 30 minutes of finishing their improvised set-up, Lakers players were lifting in their hotel.
The strength staff can also use weights and equipment at playing venues and practice facilities at on-campus ballrooms. But gym time is restricted by cleaning protocols, so plenty of lifts and other conditioning are done in adjoining hotel rooms that can house a maximum of two players and two coaches at a time. They’ve largely forsaken advanced, fancy electronic equipment in favor of weights and bands — the analog stuff that simply works.
“We’ve outfitted it with pretty much almost everything we have in our gym (in El Segundo), but just on a much smaller scale,” Hill said. “None of the equipment repeats itself, if that makes sense. But we’re operating pretty well under the circumstances.”
Though downtime is rare, it’s best done like most other things in the bubble: together. When Hill isn’t reading or stealing FaceTime moments with his family, he practices martial arts strikes with Streit — or sometimes with the Lakers’ first security guard in the bubble, who is a jiu jitsu expert. Hsieh swims in the pool, but sometimes indulges in bike rides around the resort with massage therapist Stacey Robinson.
On her first off day she could remember, Seto and Pelinka grabbed rods and bait for a “friendly fishing bet” off one of the bridges at the resort. Pelinka caught four; Seto didn’t catch any — but it was a welcome way to blow off steam.
The bubble, which several people in it have likened to the world’s biggest AAU tournament, requires going back to what a lot of people in the NBA think of as their roots with long hours and sometimes thankless work. Many staffers have experience in the G League or colleges with the menial tasks and multiple roles they’re charged with now.
That’s a mentality that starts from the top with Vogel, who famously pleaded his way onto Rick Pitino’s Kentucky staff as a student manager and handled all sorts of odd jobs on his coaching path. While some players have teased him for carrying bags to and from the arena, they also have followed his example.
When Vogel took the job, a shadow of dysfunction hung over the franchise — on the day he was introduced, infighting between former president Magic Johnson and Pelinka was splashed across national airwaves. But what’s happening now, he said, is a validation of the culture in the organization.
“It’s not just the players in uniform. It’s the front office, it’s the coaching staff, training staff, video team, training guys, everybody working together and helping each other out. And that’s been a real positive, a breath of fresh air. ” he said. “There’s a really healthy atmosphere here. The perception of the way this organization works was very different from reality.”
When individual workouts began in May, players filtered in slowly. But two of the chief draws were the Lakers’ weight room and the training room. While the Lakers had set up Zoom workouts and sent equipment to players, it’s not the same as being there. Hsieh remembered how appreciative players were as she worked on knots in their shoulders, their backs, their legs.
It’s an appreciation that carries into the bubble. Players can be notoriously finicky about routines and pregame preferences, but they’re adapting to the circumstances just like the people who help heal, train, nourish and clothe their bodies for game day.
Last week, a fridge in the laundry room was suddenly stocked with beer for equipment staffers — a gift from Miami’s Jimmy Butler who has a sponsorship. That gesture and other small ones like it communicates the respect that has only grown from players.“I always appreciate the things they do, because they don’t get any accolades or get any support from fans and stuff like that,” Alex Caruso said. “The only recognition they get is from us on the team. .. They’re trying, man. Their jobs are already hard enough.”
The Lakers’ first official game in the bubble was a three-hour marathon against the Clippers. LeBron James returned to the Gran Destino like his teammates in need of a shower and a meal. But as he saw Hsieh, Henk and other support staff loading an elevator with bags to whisk up and store on their floor, he stopped to help out.
“I mean he played, so he’s tired and he’s hungry. And he’s still helping us,” Hsieh said. “That’s kind of what it’s been like. That’s what everybody has done.”