MANILA, Philippines -- The upcoming All-Filipino Conference will present a unique challenge to PBA players, all of whom have not played competitive basketball in nearly seven months because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Only one game was played in the Philippine Cup when it opened on March 8 -- the finals rematch between San Miguel Beer and Magnolia. Three days later, all PBA activities were suspended because of the health crisis, and it was not until August that teams were finally allowed to train together in small groups.
Last week, the 12 PBA teams entered the "bubble" in Clark, Pampanga, where the league will hold its lone conference for the year. This was patterned on bubbles done by the NBA, the WNBA, and other leagues in the United States, which have proven effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19.
It may be the safest way to hold sporting events in the new normal. But it will also take a toll on the athletes, not just physically but perhaps even more so, mentally.
"Of course, mentally it could be draining," said NLEX guard Kiefer Ravena during a recent appearance on "2OT."
"You're confined in an area na hanggang doon ka lang talaga. 'Di ka makakalabas, walang pasyal. You'll see the same faces mostly all the time," he added.
Ravena pointed out that this is a sacrifice they have to make for the sake of pushing through with the PBA season. The league has also done what it can to ensure that the players are well taken care of inside the bubble in Clark. After fulfilling the mandatory two-day quarantine while waiting for the results of their swab tests, the players could explore the 200-hectare property.
There are game rooms, a swimming pool, and a golf course available for their use. The players are also doing what they can to entertain themselves, with some of them -- including Ravena -- bringing their gaming consoles to the Quest Hotel.
Of course, their time will also be occupied. Teams are now allowed to practice at the Angeles University Foundation Gym, where they can hold 5-on-5 scrimmages. A weight room is also available for their use, and some teams are doing road work.
Nonetheless, they are bracing for the inevitable mental toll that the bubble will take on them.
"Una baka siguro makaka-apekto dito 'yung routine mo, mababago," said Magnolia guard Paul Lee, also on "2OT". "Like, 'di ka matutulog sa sarili mong kama, 'di mo kasama ang family mo. 'Yun ang mabigat doon."
"Siguro dito, more on mental ang mangyayari," he added.
"Lalo na, kapag naglaro ka, nagkaroon ka ng bad game, 'yung schedule natin ngayon, every other day so kailangan matuto kang, makalimutan mo kaagad 'yun and prepare for the next game," he said.
Ordinarily, his family helps Lee get over bad games. He can go home and spend time with his wife, Rubie, and take care of his young daughter, Tokyo. It's a way for him to get his mind off a bad performance, off a bad loss.
Inside the bubble, there won't be any such comfort for Lee.
"Alam mo 'yung sobrang sama ng laro mo tapos ikaw lang sa loob ng kwarto, 'yun ang mabigat, 'yun ang mental," he said. "Kasi madali kung andyan tayo sa normal life. May laro ka sa PBA at sobrang sama ng laro mo talaga. Pag-uwi mo, end of the day, makakasama mo family mo, makakalimutan mo 'yung game. Pero ito sobrang hirap nito for sure."
In the NBA, playing in the bubble had a clear impact even on some of the best players in the world. Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers revealed after a playoff game that the bubble "got the best of me."
"I was in a dark place," he said after a game against the Dallas Mavericks. His admission came after a series of poor performances that turned George into the subject of jokes and harsh criticisms on social media.
Lee was aware of George's predicament and admitted that PBA players may find themselves also dealing with mental health issues inside the bubble.
"Noong nakita ko 'yung kay Paul George, naisip ko rin siya na pwedeng mangyari sa amin. 'Yun nga, mga NBA players, nangyari 'yung ganoon, so for sure, hindi lang 'yun ang makikita mo sa PBA. Kasi sobrang mental noon eh," he said.
As much as they are preparing for the physical toll of playing games every other day, they are also pondering how to deal with the possible mental strain of competing inside the bubble. Some of the PBA players have played in a closed-door game before, particularly those who suited up for Gilas Pilipinas in a FIBA World Cup qualifying game against Qatar in September 2018.
This, however, will be an unprecedented experience for all of them.
"Dito siguro, kung sino ang pinaka-matibay 'yung mental, mas makakakatulong sa game niya kasi 'di ka masyadong mag-iisip or what," said Lee.
"Medyo matagal din naman 'to, it's a test of mental toughness and at the same time 'yung brotherhood niyo as a team, mapapatibay talaga," said Ravena. "Everybody in this bubble is experiencing something that could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, 'di ba. So, 'yun ang iniisip namin."
The PBA's All-Filipino Cup will resume on October 11, with games to be held every day at the AUF Gym. The conference is expected to run until mid-December.