TNT KaTropa begin life in a bubble at INSPIRE Sports Academy

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization last March, everything stopped, including all sports.

However, a plan was conceived by the NBA to stage a three-month long bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex inside Walt Disney World in Florida.

Thus far, the staging of the games has proven to be an immense success, with no positive cases being reported since the bubble was opened.

In the Philippines, the PBA floated the idea last Aug. 25 at the Philippine Sportswriters Association Forum of having a similar bubble if the government allows them to resume the staging of the league's 45th season.

PBA Commissioner Willie Marcial bared that the league is looking at several prospective locations, including the Smart-Araneta Coliseum, Subic, Clark, Pampanga, NU Laguna, and Batangas.

Locations such as El Nido, Palawan, and Dubai have also been pitched to the league.

The TNT KaTropa was the first PBA team to test the bubble concept at INSPIRE Sports Academy located within the NU Laguna Campus.

INSPIRE (Integrated Sports Performance, Innovation and Recovery) is said to be the first of its kind in the country, specializing in the training and education of student-athletes.

For two whole weeks, the risk of catching the virus will be out of the minds of the 30 people holed up there, and they will solely focus on getting back in game shape.

KaTropa team manager Gabby Cui relayed to ESPN5 how the team is moving inside the bubble.

TNT in the bubble

Since they arrived Wednesday morning, PBA protocol has been set in motion for their every move. All participants had their luggage disinfected by the staff, had their names registered, and temperature checked. They then proceeded to check inside their rooms, one person per room.

Every player was accounted for, said Cui, except for Ray Parks Jr., and Simon Enciso, who are both in the United States attending to personal matters.

Though they were asked to return to the Philippines next week, they will not be part of the bubble, since the two will undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine period and swab test.

Following protocols set by the PBA and the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), the team was divided into groups of six: four players, an assistant, and a safety officer with a medical background.

While one group plays on the ground floor, Cui says, another group is focusing on their strength in a world-class weight room located on another floor.

"It's really about getting back to game shape. It's about conditioning," Cui said.

"A lot of shooting. A lot of ball handling drills. We can execute plays but we have social distancing. We can't go near each other," he added.

When it's time for the players to refuel, the groups of six remain in the spacious dining hall. They are served packed meals and eat while observing physical distancing.

"If magkasabay yung dalawang group, malaki siya. They can social distance," Cui explained.

In addition to the PBA-mandated 14-day swab-rapid-swab test protocol, TNT opted to do the tests every seven days.

This Friday, the clinic, managed by the Asian Hospital and Medical Center, will conduct a rapid test to check if the players are cleared from the virus.

If one tests positive, the group of six will be set aside and quarantined, according to PBA protocol.

"The team is pretty excited to be going back. It's great to be here back playing. The court and being together, even though we can't play 5 on 5," Cui said.

"We want to get the most out of our training here. We're hoping that there will be 5 on 5 but we'll do whatever the PBA and IATF wants us to do, and we're hoping that the season can start mid-October. Sana, they find a place where we can bubble. The place is exclusive to us also, no one else is here but us," added the team manager.

After they leave on Sept. 9, the team will head back to their usual practice facility at the Moro Lorenzo Gym inside Ateneo de Manila University.

"The main difference is, kasi when we practice in Moro, we have to go home. There's a variability here. It's practice, go to your room, eat, practice, eat. It's just a more controlled environment here I think. And also, the intensity of you being focused," expounded Cui.

The real PBA 'bubble'

Cui believes that the PBA is working hard for the league to resume, while the players are willing to sacrifice just to play ball.

The NBA just showed that the bubble is doable and has provided a blueprint for Asia's oldest pro league to do a similar concept.

"I know Comm. Willie and the PBA Board are trying too hard to find us the right place and the right bubble where we can all go together and play. I hope we find it so that we can get it done. If the NBA was able to do it, we can do it," said Cui.

Security of tenure

Three KaTropa players - Kelly Williams, Samboy de Leon, and Almond Vosotros - had their expiring contracts renewed until Dec. 31.

Their respective deals were supposed to lapse at the end of the month, but due to the current situation, negotiations will be made in December.

"We wanted to give them peace of mind even through this COVID, di ba? But we will extend their contracts till the end of the year," added Cui.