Outside the NBA Bubble: McKenzie Caldwell-Pope on Parenting, FaceTime Date Night and Quarantine Style

The wife of Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope talked to E! News about her new normal with three kids at home, her support system gone virtual and an Instagram Live show in her closet.

By Natalie Finn, Holly Passalaqua Aug 29, 2020 7:00 PMTags
Watch: 5 Things to Know About the NBA Bubble

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.

When McKenzie Caldwell-Pope heard about the NBA's plan to sequester her husband and his fellow basketball players in a not-all-that-figurative bubble so they could finish the season and eventually crown a champion, she had two questions.

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"My initial reaction was, how is this going to work? And when am I going to see you again?" the wife of Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope recalled to E! News in an exclusive interview earlier this month.

"But because my husband plays for the Lakers," McKenzie continued, "they're like, 'This is our year.' So they were so determined to make it work. I'm just trying to support from home and hold it down."

So far, so good for the mother of three boys, 8-year-old Kenzo, 3-year-old Kentavious Jr. and 1-year-old Kendrix. And while a championship run would mean her husband of four years (who's often familiarly referred to by game announcers as KCP) will be away from home until October, at least hoisting that trophy at the end of perhaps the most fraught, emotionally taxing NBA seasons of all time would suggest the inconvenience was well worth it.

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A Caldwell-Pope reunion is more imminent, though, with players being allowed guests inside the bubble starting in the second round. The Lakers are currently up 3-1 over the Portland Trailblazers in their first-round series, Game 5 having been postponed after teams—starting with the Milwaukee Bucks—chose not to play on Wednesday in protest of another police shooting, this one in Kenosha, Wis., about 40 miles from where the Bucks play. At first it was unclear if the playoffs would resume at all, with the Lakers and L.A. Clippers reportedly willing to end the postseason right then and there, but the NBA announced Thursday that they would keep going.

Kim Klement-Pool/Getty Images

So, if McKenzie wasn't quite sure what to expect in Orlando before, the atmosphere is going to be even more charged now.

The boys of course can't wait to watch their dad play live, but McKenzie hasn't made any promises, considering so far the audiences for these games have consisted of guys on the bench, team staff, a smattering of players from other teams and fans piped in via a technologically impressive yet still weird-when-you-think-about-it video screen—no cardboard cutouts for this league!

"Then I would like to travel with my mom or a nanny," she added. "So I would need at least five spaces. I don't know how that's gonna work and I honestly don't even think they have it figured out yet because we haven't heard anything."

A couple of days after we spoke the NBA re-confirmed in a memo to teams that "player's families and longtime close personal friends" would be allowed in after the first round ended, with up to 17 guest rooms allocated to each team. (Amusingly, per ESPN, the memo spells out that people the guys just know from social media or anyone they haven't met in person before do not qualify.) Moreover, guests are expected to quarantine at home for seven days before they enter the bubble and for seven days at the hotel once they're there, before they can reunite with Dad/Son/Husband/Brother/Partner. And if any guest leaves the bubble, they can't come back.

Really, though, it's just more strangeness piled on top of strangeness, the Caldwell-Popes first getting used to staying put at home in Atlanta after the NBA season was abruptly suspended on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then having to create a new, unprecedented routine once the teams reported for Orlando in early July.

McKenzie spoke to E! News about what it's been like navigating this new normal:

Paying It Forward

Like many of the players who found themselves with unprecedented time on their hands this past spring, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope used the opportunity to get a project he'd been working on for about a year off the ground, another way to give back to the community that formed his early life.

In early August he announced the launch of Never Give Up, an initiative aimed at providing better opportunities for families in his hometown of Greenville, Ga.—where he played high school ball and, in normal times, he holds a summer camp.

"My husband is from a town that has less than 900 people," McKenzie told E! News. "For him, who has made it this far, it's just incredible, like, it's one in a million. He definitely loves to go back to his hometown just to give back and do the camps. We like to do back to school drives and we do something around Thanksgiving," such as giving out turkeys.

And "we usually just do it without any type of organization," just the two of them and a few members of KCP's family, she continued. So, "he wanted to get organized and his mantra has always been, 'never give up.' People always ask how he made it, coming from where he came from. He's always said, he never gave up. So, one of the biggest things right now he wants to do is rebuild the [basketball] court in his hometown. That is our first initiative."

McKenzie said, "He played on a court that was literally cement. He said they painted the lines on it themselves, so they're not even regulation. The hoops don't even have nets, it's just a metal hoop. He said he just wanted to go back to where it all started. And that's what we're doing right now."

Too Darn Quiet...and Clean

McKenzie said that telling her boys she's going to call their father remains a good tactic when it comes to imposing a little discipline.

"We have a nanny," she shared, "but boys want their mom," so more often than not she's watching over all three kids while the nanny helps out with other tasks around the house—a routine that in normal times includes KCP coming home in time to give them a bath or at least give his wife a minute to herself. She continued, "I just have to tell them, 'Oh, I'm going to call your dad.' And for some reason, even though he's way in Orlando, it still works. So, you know, they still listen, but not having him in tangible [form] I guess is the biggest difference."

As it turns out, KCP misses the craziness, too—even the crying and yelling.

"It was good just to get away from the noise, but then I'm kind of missing it," he told the Los Angeles Times after being in the bubble for five weeks, explaining how his older boys do a fair share of shouting at each other, and love to start playing or watching TV at 7:30 a.m. while he and his wife are trying to sleep. "I didn't think I would say I miss my kids making all type of noise."

On the flip side, McKenzie admits that she even misses picking up after her husband. "I go into the bathroom and it's spotless," she said. "I'm so used to him coming home from practice, he peels off his clothes like a snake skin and they just lay on the floor—and I pick them up, or whatever! My bed is made all day, because usually after practice he'll come in, take a nap. I'm like, my house is too clean, what is going on?! You know, it's so crazy."

Game Strategy

Like for so many basketball families right now, FaceTime has been a saving grace, with KCP telling the Times he calls the boys when they wake up in the morning or right before they go to bed. And then there are the times when they must get a hold of him for urgent business.

"The kids like to FaceTime now," McKenzie told E! News. "Anytime they want something because they like to order things on Amazon, I'm like, 'Call your dad.' They will FaceTime and talk about it. So it's been fun." A new play set was en route to the house at that moment, in fact. 

But the kids aren't the only ones enjoying the perks of online shopping. 

"He has a mailing address," McKenzie said, "so I've been able to send him care packages, just like fun stuff that I find online—he likes to play cards with his teammates and I found these Martin[-themed] cards from the TV show. He loves that show, so I sent him those and his favorite candy. Little things like that."

Renewing the Romance

KCP has been more preoccupied since the season officially resumed in the bubble, but when he first got there they had regular virtual dates—mainly just sweet, simple moments of alone time to "eat our food together, have a glass of wine, or watch the same show," McKenzie shared. "Little things like that just to spice it up. But now that games have started that's keeping him busy—at first he was so bored."

At least, unlike many of their fellow basketball couples, their wedding anniversary fell during the time he was home, on June 11.

"Today is the day two hearts turned to one, thank you for all the love you have brought into my life," KCP wrote to his wife on Instagram. "The smile you give me, still melts my heart! 4years of marriage and I still feel the same way about you the day I fell for you baby! I love you shoogs!! Happy Anniversary my queen."

McKenzie posted scenes from their reception, writing, "This video still gives me chills. The magical moments when we decided on forever together. You are my today and all of my tomorrows. Happy Anniversary Shoogs!"

The Not-Newlyweds Game

Even after more than seven years together—they met in 2013, when she was living in Dallas and KCP came to town with the Detroit Pistons to play the Mavericks—Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell-Pope are still finding new ways to connect.

They've been playing a couple's card game "to get to know each other better," McKenzie said, "because you know, you need to relearn yourself." Life so far has been primarily all about that basketball life and, even though that's not exactly changing anytime soon, they've found they have "a whole new dynamic" to explore as a couple.

Now a wholehearted NBA fan, McKenzie has admitted that she had no idea who her husband was when she first met him (he was in his rookie year, having been drafted by the Pistons out of the University of Georgia) at a local lounge where the clothing designer she worked for at the time was having an event. Too shy to make the first move, Kentavious had a friend do the introductions.

"After we spoke for a while he invited me to come see him play," McKenzie recalled to Brides.com in 2017. "I had no idea what he meant, but he explained he played for the Pistons and was in town for a game. I went, and we've been together ever since"—albeit long-distance until they got engaged.

Bonded for Life

She may have been instantly smitten, but McKenzie wanted to make sure KCP was the right guy before she introduced him to Kenzo, her son from a previous relationship, who was 1 at the time.

"I have always been extremely protective over my son, Kenzo, and hadn't dated anyone else since he was born," she told LoveStoriesTV in 2016, when she and KCP tied the knot in a Gatsby-themed ceremony in Atlanta. "I didn't allow Kenzo and Kentavious to meet until about six months into our relationship, but from day one they have had an unbreakable bond. The way he loved my son, made me love him even more. Even three years later, to see them together still makes my heart melt. At that point, I knew he was the one."

When Kenzo turned 8 in May, the NBA star wrote on Instagram, "Since day 1 I've watched u grow into this creative and brilliant young man! I love you young king."

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When Kentavious Jr. turned 3 in April, KCP wrote, "Happy birthday KJ! 3 years old already man and every day have been truly a gift and definitely the funniest kids I have. I love u son."

Calling All Closets

Home is where her family is, but work is where the closet it. Earlier this year McKenzie launched her own Instagram Live show, Sip 'N Style in which she and her guests talk about all things fashion, accessories and glam—and, yes, you can buy your own blinged-out cup to literally sip along.

"I'm obviously super passionate about fashion, I just always have been," the Louisiana Tech grad, who has a degree in business marketing, said. "I started a YouTube channel, which I still have, I'm still working on, but I feel most of my following right now is on Instagram, so I was like, 'What can I do on Instagram?'" 

The answer: "Let's go live. So I started reaching out to my friends that I know—I call them my fashion friends—that I know have a super-dope closet or I know have super-dope style. I was like, let's go live and talk about fashion. I'll host because I love hosting. I love interviewing my friends, because I know they feel comfortable with me, and we'll just talk about what's in their closet.

"I know a lot of the girls, whether it be Amazon or Louis Vuitton, we are all shopping in the quarantine! I mean, every day we have so many packages coming up! So I'm like, let's just talk about that!"

She continued, "People love it, because people have seen MTV Cribs, people have seen people's houses, people have seen Pimp My Ride. You know, there are all types of house shows and car shows and no one really gets into the closet. Now, this is like the perfect avenue. It's been great. I've been doing it for a couple months and people are really feeling it and catching on. This is my baby and it's kind of blossoming. Now people reach out to me to be on the show." 

Stamp of Approval

While her own closet is nothing to scoff at, McKenzie said she'd love to talk shop with Kylie Jenner (her closet is like "a freaking museum") or storage-and-organization legend Khloe Kardashian, or stylist June Ambrose

And it's not just the clothes, but how you hang, fold, group and arrange them.

"Having the pieces is a good thing," McKenzie said, "but having your closet displayed so beautifully...gorgeous! I just get butterflies. It's so satisfying to my soul."

Making an Effort

Asked for her strategy for staying upbeat and practicing self-care in these pandemic times, McKenzie advised, "Number one, I would definitely say whenever you wake up, make your bed—I don't know what it does, but somehow it makes you have a more productive day. When you make your bed when you wake up."

Next, "even if you don't wear makeup, just make sure you do your face routine," all the better to feel good about yourself.

"Put on a cute outfit," she continued, "whether it's a matching little Nike set or comfortable loungewear. Don't just go and throw a T-shirt on and some sweats to go sit on your computer to do your online work...Every time you walk past the mirror, you want to feel confident and presentable. And that gives you that inner motivation to push through your day. Because I know some of my friends that sleep until noon, they're like, 'I just want the day to go by faster!'

"So, just getting up, making your bed, making yourself presentable. Even for Sip 'N Style I'm getting my makeup done, just because it makes me feel good. I'm not even going to go anywhere. I'm going to be at home. But, you know, it just makes me feel good to do that one thing for myself. Also incorporating a workout in [is important]. There's so many fitness pages right now that do live classes on their Instagrams or YouTube channel...yoga, the Peloton is  super popular right now, anything like that—all things that you don't even have to leave the house" to do.

Bubble Balance

While McKenzie knows it hasn't been all fun and games for her husband in the bubble, what with the boredom, the endless safety protocol to abide by and missing his family, she still thinks she's the one who got the short end of the stick.

"I definitely think it's harder on me and I hope I'm not being selfish by saving that," she explained. "He's away doing his job, so that's somewhat normal, right, because he's used to kind of being away, in and out. He has his teammates. He's around the same people. For me, I'm at home now, I can't really leave because we have the three kids—I really don't get out."

She's been out to eat about twice, McKenzie estimates, and she's been "super cautious" about being in quarantine. And while KCP was helping Kenzo with his math lessons when school went online in the spring, now the homeschooling is up to Mom alone (and she, like countless parents, was hoping that kids would be going back to school by now). 

"So now I'm taking on the role of a teacher and now I'm going to prepare for that," she told us on Aug. 10. Meanwhile, "they provide entertainment for [the players] in the bubble."

One Day at a Time


As far as her leisure time goes, she stays busy "trying to be creative to find things for the kids to do. We live full-time in L.A. during the season and during the school year, but we have another home in Atlanta and just for a change of scenery we ended up coming out here. We have a pool, we have way more privacy for the kids to run around, a driveway. They can ride bikes and they can swim... So we're here. I'm trying to make it work out here by entertaining them in different ways."

Knowing what it was like to celebrate her own dad's birthday from afar in July, she was glad that KCP was home for Kentavious Jr.'s 3rd birthday in April (he got a Sonic the Hedgehog-themed party—though he's a Tails fan—in quarantine) and to see Kenzo turn 8 in May.

Little Experts

McKenzie says that she's not sure how, exactly ("I don't know if it's TikTok or what"), but her kids are very in tune with coronavirus-era protocol. "They always wear their masks," she says. "I'll take them to Smoothie King—for some reason they're super into getting smoothies right now....They'll say, 'Mom, I need my mask, or 'we can't go to Chuck E. Cheese because of coronavirus, right?' They'll tell me [and] I'm like, 'How do you know?!'"

Support System

McKenzie is grateful for the support system she has through the National Basketball Wives Association, a philanthropic-minded group of women who not only can commiserate during strange times such as these (without worrying that they might sound out of touch to the average wife and mom), but are there to lift each other up whenever they're feeling low. 

"Reaching out to my friends that are in the same situation, they're away from their husbands" and missing them so much is a comfort. "But," she acknowledged, "to my cousin who has a husband that's been deployed for nine months, she's like, 'Okay get over it.' So it's really good to have those women to just vent to and motivate each other, and even whenever we were in L.A. for a little bit [this past spring] to get our kids together because we know we're both quarantined."

She continued, "I really love the Wives Association." The pandemic prevented an in-person gathering this year, but in the past they've had summits, where they can freely talk about their passion projects, network and get advice. "You may network with someone that can help you get to the next level in whatever you're doing," McKenzie explained. "It's just really great." Plus, they "bond and meet other women from other cities," which, considering their husbands could end up with a job in another city at any time, can provide a valuable lifeline for a new family in town. For example, "I had friends that moved to Detroit [where KCP played from 2013 until 2017] after we did and they [wanted to know], 'Where did you get your hair done?' 'Who did you get your nails?' 'What school did your kids go to?' It really helps."

Because, despite the obvious perks that come with the lifestyle, being married to a basketball player can be "such a lonely life," McKenzie admitted. "I always joke that I keep having kids, so I'll just have company." But honestly, she continued, "It requires more than people think. Mental strength, staying positive, being away from your husband. Besides the bubble, you know, they're gone maybe three to four days a week" during the NBA season. "But that's just holding down the house and taking care of home. And then some of us have off-season homes and take care of those households, taking care of our family members" and not wanting to bother their husbands while they're trying to keep their minds on the game. "So, we wear a lot of hats."

Army of Four

The pains of long-distance parenting and romance aside, McKenzie is proud to realize that she has tapped into a well of strength she didn't even know she had. 

"I realized that I feel like I can handle anything," she said. "If you can handle three kids in a pandemic... I feel like I can go to war." And if her kids weren't with her, "I don't even know what I would do all day. I could work out and I could finish my day by noon, and I'm like, 'Okay, now what?!' So they've been really entertaining for me, too. At the same time, it is a lot of work.

"I always say, being a mom is the hardest job and the best job. So they are my little best friends."

In case next season has to take place in a bubble, too, McKenzie just hopes they've figured out a way for families to stay together. "I really try not to get my hopes up," she said, "but that would be incredible if we can all be together."

She's allowed her hopes to stay high in one respect, however.

When Kentavious gets home, McKenzie said, "hopefully we'll be celebrating a championship." And while she'd love to go on a real getaway, she'd also be good spending a month staycationing in a house all together "because we've been apart for so long, and just live it up...We can just soak it all in, because this is crazy!

"Sometimes I think, 'Oh, it's gonna be okay, things are gonna get back to normal—but what is normal?!"