Inside the NBA bubble’s unofficial wine clubon August 6, 2020 at 4:14 pm

IN THE DAYS leading up to the NBA’s Florida reboot, New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick contemplated what provisions to bring for a stay in the Orlando bubble that would last at least five weeks. He initially focused only on the necessities and packed light. Then on July 8, once he arrived with the Pelicans at their appointed hotel, the Yacht Club, Redick gauged his room and hotel amenities.

One of his first efforts was to examine the wine list.

Redick quickly found that the list offered a collection of homogenous Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon — the sort produced by the hundreds of thousands of cases each year. Connoisseurs identify these wines early, quickly move on and never look back. And Redick, like many in the modern NBA, is a connoisseur.

There’s a saying in wine circles that all roads lead to Burgundy, a famed French region known for wines of limited production from small parcels of land. And that is where Redick’s tastes largely reside. Burgundy is a deep-pocketed investment, as it’s among the world’s most expensive wines. But in recent years, after several dining experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants in which an elegant Burgundy accompanied a world-class experience, Redick fell in love.

At his hotel in Orlando, Redick did not see any such wines available, or anything close.

“OK,” he thought to himself. “I need to remedy this.”

Redick dialed his New York-based wine broker and immediately asked him to send a shipment. Then Redick went online to purchase an 18-bottle wine fridge for his room — something to keep the bottles at the appropriate temperature, ideally around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many of his NBA peers were making similar arrangements.

When 22 NBA teams started flowing into the bubble, so too did wine. After all, the nearly 1,400 players, staffers and others inside the NBA bubble are facing long hours of isolation in their respective hotel rooms on a restricted campus for up to 3 1/2 months. Family and friends are far away. A pandemic is raging outside the Orlando campus. A historic social justice movement continues to unfold. Stress remains high.

So, Redick says, being able to open a bottle at the end of the day and share a glass at a distance with fellow players brings something beyond normalcy and comfort.

“It provides an escape,” Redick says.

THROUGHOUT 14-HOUR DAYS that begin at around 7:30 each morning, seven days a week, roughly 20 trucks and vans — Amazon, FedEx, UPS, the United States Postal Service — deliver between 700 and 1,200 packages from all over the world to a 30,000-square-foot ballroom inside Disney World’s Coronado Springs Resort.

A team of nine is tasked with sorting the packages and sanitizing them with a disinfectant mist, after which they’re cleared to be distributed. The boxes head to each of the hotels or practice sites in disinfected vans that can hold about 200 packages apiece, steered by drivers who are tested daily for the coronavirus.


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For all the packages coming in, one type stands out.

Definitely wine,” says Vernon Peterson, a member of the NBA’s facilities team in his 16th year with the league.

The frequency of the wine packages is hard to miss. There is wine for players, for staffers, for reporters. There is wine from websites and wine brokers and wine shops and wine clubs and individual vineyards. Many have ordered wine coolers.

“You notice [wine-related packages] a lot during the day as they come in,” says Heather Messer, who, now in her 30th year with the league, handles shipping and administration for NBA events.

Peterson and Messer aren’t surprised. Everyone in the bubble is there for some time, with Messer and Peterson having arrived in late June and slated to stay until the Finals end in mid-October.

“I think after you work these long days, it’s nice to unwind,” Messer says. “It’s a relaxing thing, and it’s a reminder of home.”

During their own long days, one of their biggest challenges remains sorting packages that don’t have any address beyond “NBA” — and plenty of boxes with wine have those labels.

“Every time we get excited when we have a wine box that’s not labeled, and we think, ‘If it sits here for 30 days, it should go to us,'” Messer says with a laugh, “but they never last more than two days. Somebody is always calling to say, ‘Hey, I ordered some wine. Where is it?'”

A WINE MOVEMENT has grown in the NBA over recent years, with some players even starting their own labels, including Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and ex-Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade. That movement is even more pronounced in the bubble.

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum‘s hotel room constitutes a wine fridge of sorts. He keeps the temperature around 60 degrees when he’s inside it and in the mid-to-high 50s when he’s not, all in an effort to protect the 84 bottles that he keeps in boxes, out of the light. For the most part, McCollum shipped in pinot noir from Oregon, where he is a member at several local wineries, along with the first bottling of his own recently released wine, McCollum Heritage 91, also an Oregon pinot noir.

He has provided wine for members of the Blazers’ staff and for teammate Damian Lillard‘s recent birthday that the team celebrated on site. McCollum even ordered six more cases that he plans to give away to other players.

“If you’re in my hotel and you happen to be by the pool, you’ll be able to partake in whatever I’m drinking that day,” McCollum says, “so if it’s during the daytime it’ll probably be some bubbly. If it’s at nighttime, it’s probably pinot.”

Pelicans swingman Josh Hart shipped in a wine fridge that can hold about 20 bottles before he even arrived, and he has had bottles shipped to him — favoring Bordeaux and Napa Valley cabernet, though, he adds, “not the ones that shove fruit down your throat.”

Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony, one of the league’s most knowledgeable wine lovers, brought a selection of “old world” bottles from Europe into the bubble, according to McCollum — and, sources said, cases of additional wine are on the way for Anthony, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker and other players.

The Brooklyn Nets provided wine to accompany team dinners in the bubble, a team spokesman said. Before scrimmages began, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Chris Paul and Bob Iger, executive chairman of The Walt Disney Company (which owns ESPN), helped organize a team-wide dinner and wine tasting for the Thunder at the Yacht Club, a team source told ESPN’s Royce Young. The dinner featured a five-course meal prepared by a Michelin-star chef, after which a sommelier narrated the tasting for players and staff.

A National Basketball Players Association source said the union will be facilitating the delivery of wine from Frescobaldi, which represents a number of famed Italian wines, such as Masseto and Ornellaia, to all 22 NBPA player representatives as a collective gift for everyone on their respective teams to share. The source added that the NBPA will also offer Cheurlin Champagne, Isiah Thomas’ personal brand and the official champagne of the NBPA, as a birthday present to each player celebrating a birthday inside the bubble.

On his last trip into the bubble, Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry surprised his team by bringing four cases of wine — two of pinot noir and two of chardonnay — from Kistler Vineyards, one of California’s most acclaimed wineries, which he owns. The delivery was much appreciated, Lasry says, among a squad that is fond of team dinners, which can be traced to head coach Mike Budenholzer’s 17 years as an assistant coach under San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich — the league’s top gourmand and the godfather of team dinners.

Lasry plans to bring more each time he visits the bubble.

“They’ll be there for a while,” Lasry says. “Every time I go down, I’ll bring four or five cases. They’re happy to drink it.”

In the bubble, there are team-organized outings, including bowling, fishing and golf, all designed to help with well-being and self-care, but wine is different, several players say.

“Obviously, there’s a little bit of alcohol, so it gets you more relaxed and loose,” Hart says. “But the bigger thing is, this is an uncomfortable time in terms of not being with family, not being in your own house, your own bed for at least six, seven weeks.”

McCollum points out that players are facing hours of isolation in their hotel room, often leaving only for basketball activities or scheduled COVID-19 tests.

“Other than that, you’re in your room at least half the day, if you include sleep,” McCollum says. “You’re in your room a lot.”

In the bubble, Hart is bereft of almost all comforts of home. When Hart is at home, he hangs out with his dogs, girlfriend and family, playing video games and enjoying wine, a burgeoning hobby for him that started to flourish in recent years, especially when he played for the Lakers. (In Los Angeles, he says, James and point guard Rajon Rondo would always bring wine on the team plane, and that helped jump-start his newfound passion.)

“I have my video game setup [in Orlando], and I was able to have wine, so I still have some type of normalcy, I guess,” Hart says. “It kind of gives you a kind of sense of, like, grounding and, like, normalcy even during this uncomfortable time.”

IN THE EVENINGS, players have been retreating to the players’ lounge or the pool/patio area near their hotel and, from a respectful distance, sharing bottles of wine.

“You see some teams sitting at separate tables, [and] they’re drinking wine or they’re discussing things over wine,” McCollum says. “I think it’s become more common practice, especially associated with dinner — a way to catch up, a way to reflect and relax after a long day of working out and obviously being restricted to the bubble.”

Hart and Redick have opened several bottles together, the variety of which can be seen on Hart’s new Instagram account: @jhartcellars. There has been Bordeaux and classic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and Redick has been introducing Hart to the wonders of Burgundy. Hart is quick to note, though, that Redick has been in the NBA longer and can more easily afford such wines.

“See, you can do that,” Hart says he told Redick with a laugh. “You’ve been in the league for 15 years, built up some nice paydays. Burgundy is expensive. I’m still on my rookie deal, my man.”

Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris posted a video to Instagram of 2018 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley that was gifted to him by his close friend and ex-teammate Boban Marjanovic of the Dallas Mavericks. Utah Jazz forward Royce O’Neale posted an Instagram video of himself drinking former Rockets star Yao Ming’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which appeared to be in a paper cup.

Redick has shared some of his wine with his Pelicans teammate Nicolo Melli, and Redick keeps a wine-focused text thread with his former Sixers teammate T.J. McConnell and McConnell’s Indiana Pacers teammate Doug McDermott, both of whom are into wine. He has set aside bottles to share with them at some point.

McCollum and Anthony have enjoyed several bottles together, including McCollum’s new label. It’s a far cry from the times they’ve visited Oregon wineries together, engaging in barrel tastings and staying long after closing time, discussing the wine, guessing the soil types and vintages.

“He’s got a really, really good knowledge of wine, especially old world, and he loves that stuff and has heavily exposed me to it to where I’ve been able to learn more about Burgundy and been able to learn more about some of those other regions that I haven’t quite frankly been to,” McCollum says of Anthony. “So kind of going through those things to where you truly understand and share and appreciate the wine with someone, it leads to a lot of great conversations and a lot of eventful evenings.”

Wine brings people together in the bubble, players say, and as it flows, so too does the conversation about basketball, the state of the country and the NBA’s unprecedented undertaking.

“This is something that no one has ever done before,” Hart says of the bubble, then adding of the wine, “It definitely helps.”

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