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November 1, 2023

Blown Away By The Bubble


Coming together to save the NBA season taught me so much


I’VE BEEN INVOLVED in some historic sporting moments in my 25 years as an NBA referee, but one of the highlights of my career occurred behind closed doors, not in front of a crowd. I’m referring to being part of what the media dubbed the “2020 NBA Bubble,” the isolation initiative which saved the season hit by COVID-19.

Participating in that remarkable undertaking was one of the most challenging—and rewarding—things I have ever done. I learned so much about myself, my referee friends, my colleagues, and the players. Between us, we were able to deliver a welcome shot of entertainment and drama to countless sports fans.

One of the best things was how we all came together as a group. I also got to see more of the people who are part of the sport that you never think about—those running the digital systems, the lights and the sounds, and the people that do the floor.

I’ll never forget the scrimmage game in the first week we were there. I figured I’d just run up and down the floor and get back in shape, but those guys were playing like it was game seven in the finals, right away. I give the players so much credit for their effort, the dedication to the game that they brought. They took it to a whole other level.

When the players refused to play, to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, we referees did a march around the perimeter, three times, to show our support. We thought it was just going to be the 44 of us, but we were joined by others—the digital people, the radio people, the TV people—so there were about 200 taking part. The people working at the resort—the housekeeping staff, the front desk—stood along the route when we came past and clapped.

I’m not going to compare what we went through to being in prison, but the hardest part of it all was the isolation, the number of hours you spent in your room doing nothing. We could walk around the perimeter of the resort, so we would do that, between three and five laps, just to get outside for an hour or two each day. Each team had their own room, and so did the refs.

We had golf mats. We had ping pong and pool. We played cards. There were video games. They really tried to have everything, but after a while you could play dominoes only so long!

They also had mental health doctors there, and I wasn’t afraid to go and meet with one of them. We talked about how you have to develop a routine, how to structure your day.

In all, I was there for 93 days. It was a long ride, a real mental undertaking. But it was a great experience—exhausting, but great.

James Capers has officiated more than 1,500 games in 25 years as an NBA referee. A graduate of Northern Illinois University, he is the son of former NBA official James Capers Sr.

PHOTO – NBA referee James Capers with the late basketball great, Kobe Bryant.