With the COVID-19 pandemic changing how we do, well, everything, the NBA was forced to come up with a new game plan to finish their 2019-2020 season.
The solution—the much-discussed bubble—saw some 300 players from the league's top 22 teams sequestered in one of three Disney World resorts for up to three months as they strive to be crowned champions of this long, strange season.
But what about the those on the outside feeling as if their bubble had burst? With their partners locked down in Florida, scores of women have been left to navigate work responsibilities, bedtime routines, middle-of-the-night feedings, meal prep and, in some cases, even childbirth without their teammate. And now they're speaking exclusively with E! News about that new normal. These are their basketball diaries.
Mike Conley Jr. always planned to leave the NBA bubble so that he could be back home in Ohio for the birth of his third child.
It's just that the baby had a different plan.
Mary Conley went into labor on Aug. 16, 11 days early and certainly before the Utah Jazz point guard expected to leave Orlando—where 22 teams resumed their suspended season last month after the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down in March—and Mike was still en route to the hospital in Columbus when his son was born, so he ended up watching the delivery via FaceTime.
Just one more major event taking place on video chat these days.
"In the words of our oldest son, 'Welcome to the world Lightning Thunder Michael Alex Conley'!" the 32-year-old athlete wrote on Instagram. "We settled on Elijah Michael Conley instead.. close enough though. What an awesome reminder of what's important in life and what motivates us to be better! #mommydidgreat #blessed."
Happily, it wasn't too much longer before he was at his wife's side, cuddling his newborn son (they had waited till his arrival to find out the sex) and enjoying skin-to-skin bonding, after which the family of five—Elijah joining big brothers Myles, 4, and Noah, 2—made the most of the time they had together before Dad had to go back to work. (Where Mike, who was averaging 18 points and five assists in the bubble before he went on leave, was required to quarantine for at least four days, pending daily negative COVID tests, before he could rejoin his teammates in the first round of the playoffs.)
"You know, signing up to be a wife of an NBA player, you are prepared for your spouse, your significant other, to leave, to travel, to be gone for long periods of time," Mary shared in an exclusive interview with E! News about a week before she welcomed Elijah. "And that was something I was always mentally prepared for. Having him gone for months at a time was something that I was not ever prepared for."
And to be honest, she said, "when COVID first started, I felt really bad for all the women who were due to have babies during that time and you know whether their spouse couldn't be there, or they were only allowed one person [in the hospital]. I was so grateful, selfishly, that I wasn't having my baby in the early spring. Well, here we are in August and COVID is still affecting everybody and affecting me big time with them in the bubble."
And even when the NBA's bubble plan finally took shape as a reality, "I thought I would get to go early," Mary said. "I thought they would make an exception since we had the baby coming."
As in, the league would have to let some family members in who were going through life events that called for the players to be with their partners, and she could give birth in Orlando—but no. For teams that make it to round two of the playoffs, a certain number of guests per player will start being allowed into the hotels and arenas, where their husbands have been mainly only hanging out with each other and playing in front of largely empty stands. (Families of crew members and coaching staff will still be watching on a screen.)
So, with that hope dashed, Mary figured she could handle four to six weeks, and if the Jazz kept winning she'd pack up the boys and head to Orlando.
"At the beginning it was okay, just because I was with my in-laws, I was with my parents, and just trying to stay as busy as possible and try not to think about it," she recalled. "But then, once we're just back home and [going about] everyday life, it's actually much harder than I thought it was."
In a pre-labor interview that got sweetly emotional ("I knew going into this I was gonna cry at some point because I cry...It's hard to go a day without crying, honestly"), Mary Conley told E! News all about what it's been like keeping her family connected with Mike in the bubble, trying to make their sons feel better about missing Daddy while she was dealing with her own emotional overload and how she was tending to her mind and body while nine months pregnant.
But even when this weird NBA postseason ends and Mike returns home, life won't just bounce back to normal. He may have to quarantine again and, who knows, will the next NBA season begin in a bubble too?
They "kind of have an idea" of what to expect when this unprecedented season is over, Mary said, but everyone's learning as they go along.
As for next year (or later this year, with the 2020-2021 season now set to start Dec. 1), "I just can't imagine them taking these guys away from their families [again] for as long as they have," she told us. "I just don't think that's right and I don't think that the players would want to do that, either."
At the very least, she hopes that they'll "have the logistics of the bubble figured out" so that families can be together—if a bubble is necessary. "I mean," she added, "fingers crossed that's not the case."