Even if you don’t like sports, the NBA bubble in Orlando has been a fascinating epidemiological experiment: if you had seemingly infinite resources available and every participant willingly agreed to follow protocols based on our best understanding of a nascent viral pandemic, could you construct a truly safe environment? Take note, US government, as so far the answer has been, “Yes.” As of August 19, the NBA has officially had zero new COVID-19 infections to report over the league’s five-week restart. And that’s with the league needing to utilize contingency quarantine protocols for players unexpectedly leaving and traveling (which they’ve done for everything from family emergencies to, um, lemon-pepper chicken wings?).
Traditional media has been invited inside to an extent in order to document this unprecedented playoff season, and the NBA has relied heavily on Zoom access to players for other reporters. Twitter, naturally, has also birthed an aggregator account that will bring you all the beer-chugging player social media you desire. But nearly all of these glimpses into bubble life remain limited—the league has shifted access areas for press on a dime, and player interviews have time restrictions (and often PR personnel on the line to step in if things get into unwanted territory).
All of this makes Philadelphia 76ers guard Matisse Thybulle’s ongoing video diary remarkable and essential viewing. I’ve never been one to get into YouTube series or personalities, but his eight-episodes-and-counting of Welcome To The Bubble has been the can’t-miss viewing experience of the summer.
Thybulle’s just a kid by league standards—a rookie beloved by online stat heads who appreciate defense, largely unknown otherwise—so his approach lacks the polish of a superstar who started a production house or the time-worn savvy of a veteran who might overly self-censor. Instead, he does what any of us might do during an unusual experience: Thybulle brings his Canon EOS 6D Mark II with him everywhere as he navigates this strange new world, keeps the thing rolling, and then edits and publishes 10-minute diaries during down time.
In early videos, Thybulle demystifies bubble policies and experiences as much as any traditional media. Even if players will ultimately come into contact early and often during games, Welcome To The Bubble shows they must stay apart in fixed-position chairs during breaks on the practice court. Disney park wristbands that might normally FastPass a ride on Space Mountain instead help a player’s health data travel with them seamlessly for instant clearance. And Thybulle walks the audience through this process: after arriving to the bubble and quarantining in their rooms until passing a consecutive number of COVID-19 tests, players then must take their temperature daily and head to a ballroom regularly for nose swabs. All that medical context lives in an app (developed with the help of the NBA, much like that new COVID-19 saliva test), which is synced to the wristband that grants healthy players access to various parts of the Disney sports complex.
While such granular NBA regulations never let those in Orlando ever forget the extraordinary circumstances, at the same time, these are young men away from their families and living among their peers for an extended period of time. It can kinda, sorta be fun adult summer camp during downtime. Thybulle charmingly brings viewers along for the ride in this aspect, too. We get to see some world-class athletes enjoying some very basic activities—golf, fishing, corn hole—for the first time, and luckily Thybulle and his teammates aren’t afraid to look like amusing amateurs in front of the camera (despite providing ample ammunition to rip one another).
Perhaps most interesting of all for this particular moment, Thybulle continues to press record as he and his 76ers teammates have some real conversations about the elephant in the room: race, and specifically how NBA players might be able to leverage this high profile spotlight to spark real change in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims of police violence. At press conferences and during televised games, NBA stars have been quite eloquent and strategic about how to use their time with the media to further messages about Black Lives Matter or about particular incidents (Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, for instance, has been writing Breonna Taylor’s name on his shoes game in and game out). But Welcome To The Bubbles lets us in on the candid conversations being had behind the scenes about why this work is important and what exact actions and strategies might achieve the best results. The 76ers talk about trying to make their arena a polling place ala the Atlanta Hawks, about shouting out locally-owned Black businesses whenever possible, and about emphasizing education as the first step towards building a more equitable society.
With so much attention on the NBA bubble in general, Thybulle’s small pet project inevitably blew up. In later episodes, he talks to the camera about preparing for an interview with the New York Times or about making an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, for instance. Sixers PR can’t help but get involved here, too, as slick intro graphics start to appear and well-edited game footage does, too.
But make no mistake—Thybulle remains the one doing the work (he even shows his editing queue in what looks like iMovie). The 76ers media team actually profiled the rookie for his photography prowess last fall, and Thybulle told the New York Times it’s something he’s done for years (his mom let him play with her point-and-shoot camera as a kid). So even with a little extra polish, Thybulle’s personality, perspective, and sensibilities still sit firmly in the center of Welcome To The Bubble. In the latest episode, he responds to fan mail the series has generated, takes viewers inside the players’ restaurant, and still finds time to annoy teammate Kyle O’Quinn before grabbing some soft serve. Based on the game footage added to the end of that one, most of the events took place around August 14—before the playoffs officially started that weekend.
That’s a good thing, because it means maybe the world can enjoy an episode or two more of Welcome To The Bubble before things are said and done. In an effort to keep the bubble as safe as possible, per NBA protocols teams must exit the premises within 24 hours of being officially eliminated from the season. And in the 76ers’ first round matchup with the Boston Celtics, Thybulle’s team currently trails 0-3 in a best of seven series with Game 4 tipping off later today (1p ET). By the time you’re reading this, Thybulle could be packing up his tiny hotel room and camera and preparing to head out.
That’s a shame, because there will likely be so much more to see. When the second round of playoffs comes around, for instance, friends and family will be permitted to enter the bubble, which raises the complexity of the NBA’s epidemiological experiment. And as the United States grapples with upcoming fall challenges undeniably intertwined with COVID-19—restarting schools, conducting elections, trying to restart other sports like the NFL or college football, etc.—it’d be fascinating to hear the conversations being had in this isolated, thus far pandemic-free environment. At the very least, sticking around for the behind-the-scenes ride of a playoff run unlike any other the NBA has ever seen (and may ever see) would be the greatest time capsule sports fans could ask for.
So, Boston Celtics, if you don’t mind, maybe give the 76ers a few more days for the sake of the rest of us? The premiere of HBO’s Lovecraft Country was delightful, but it’d be great to get at least a 10- or 12-episode season for the unexpected show of the summer.
Listing image by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images