Quick iso: Life inside TBT's bubble with AJ Mahar
COLUMBUS — Before the NBA's Disney World bubble, there was The Basketball Tournament's (TBT) bubble in Columbus, Ohio. TBT brought the return of basketball on a national stage on the Fourth of July on ESPN and ESPN 2. It also provided the first look at "bubble life," which is quickly becoming the new normal for professional sports leagues as they attempt to get back to play.
AJ Mahar, a former Mount Anthony athlete and basketball coach, serves the role as general manager for Armored Athlete, a TBT staple since their creation in 2015. Mahar got the once in a lifetime experience of living in the bubble when Armored Athlete was selected on June 16 as one of 24 teams to compete in TBT 2020.
TBT ran from July 4-14 this year. Teams were not allowed to leave their hotels once they arrived in Columbus near the end of June, which meant Mahar and the rest of Armored Athlete lived in the quarantined bubble for about two weeks.
"It was a really cool experience," Mahar said. "It was a bonding opportunity that we had with all the players and coaches and GM's."
Mahar said that every TBT team was given a team room where members could hang out when not on the court.
TBT had strict protocols in place to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Each team was only allowed to travel with 12 members of the organization. In years past, that number was significantly larger for Armored Athlete.
Every member of the organization needed two negative COVID-19 test results before being allowed to arrive to Columbus. A third test was administered on arrival, and self-quarantine was required in the hotel room until those test results came back negative. Mahar said most tests results were available within 24 hours, but his test was momentarily "lost" which forced him to self-quarantine for 60 hours.
Once the third test came back negative, each member was tested every morning for seven days straight, bringing their testing totals to 10 each.
The extensive testing helped ensure there was no outbreak within the bubble. One team, No. 5 seed Eberlein Drive, had one positive test result while inside the bubble, and per the rules of TBT were automatically disqualified from the tournament and sent home immediately upon the test result. The news came on July 5, before Eberlein Drive played their first game.
Mahar said he brought computer screens which allowed him to work from his hotel room during his down time. He also brought a Xbox and members of Armored Athlete played some NBA 2K20, Madden And Call of Duty to pass the time in isolation.
Meals were delivered to their hotel rooms to ensure nobody left the hotel. The hotel was connected to the Greater Columbus Convention Center, where four makeshift basketball courts were put in place to allow each team the opportunity to practice without being exposed to the public.
Some NBA players have taken to Twitter and Instagram to criticize their bubble experience at Disney World, something Mahar finds laughable.
"It's incredible to me that these NBA guys are complaining about their bubble when they're out on boats and playing golf," Mahar said. "We didn't sniff fresh air for two weeks."
Despite being stuck inside, Mahar was grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of the bubble life.
"It was really cool to be able to spend time together and enjoy each other and connect on a different level that you typically would," Mahar said.
On the court, Armored Athlete's roster took a major hit when key players, including NBA veteran's Dominique Jones and Courtney Fortson, were unable to make the trip just a few days before the team was set to arrive in Columbus. This shrunk their roster down to eight players, and Mahar even suited up for games as an emergency option, although he did not see any game action.
Games were played at Nationwide Arena, home to the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets. Fans were not allowed to attend the games. Despite playing in a nearly-empty 20,000 seat arena, Mahar called the experience "kind of normal."
"It actually wasn't as weird as you think, it was really enjoyable," Mahar said. "I think we've all just played so much pick-up basketball throughout our lives."
Without fan noise, coaches were able to communicate with their players on the fly, a unique opportunity in the TBT.
In their first game, No. 15 Armored Athlete defeated No. 18 Power of the Paw, a Clemson University alumni team, 98-91 on July 5 on ESPN 2 in the round of 24.
In the round of 16, Armored Athlete faced off against No. 2 Overseas Elite, the four-time champion with a roster that was headlined by future NBA Hall of Famer Joe Johnson on July 9. Armored Athlete put up a fight, but ultimately lost 76-70, ending their tournament run and their shot at the $1 million winner-take-all cash prize.
Had Armored Athlete had their full roster, one Mahar had called "as close to my personal dream team as I've ever had" the GM is confident his team would have pulled off the upset.
"I think we should have got past them," Mahar said. "We didn't play great."
The Golden Eagles, a Marquette University alumni based team defeated Sideline Cancer in the championship game on July 14 to claim the $1 million.
Despite coming up short of their ultimate goal of winning the tournament, Mahar is pleased with the trajectory of his TBT squad.
"I'm very happy with the direction that we're heading," Mahar said.
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