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Meet the NBA’s medical director in charge of running the bubble

Dr. Leroy Sims talks about the massive undertaking and the promising results


LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Dr. Leroy Sims, the NBA’s medical director, contemplated the best way to describe the amount of pressure in the NBA bubble.

“Tremendous,” he said, wearing a protective mask below his tired eyes. “It’s a different type of stress than my work in the ER. Many of these situations are life and death and I deal with that. I walk into room one, code three, someone’s coming in, in respiratory distress, cardiac arrest. Like, that’s pressure too. It’s a different kind of pressure because I’m well-trained as an emergency medicine physician. I’ve gone through that process over and over. …

“What do you do if there’s a COVID spread in a bubble? Well, that just hasn’t happened. And so how do we minimize COVID in this bubble? That’s pressure. That’s stress.”

Sims currently oversees the NBA’s bubble in Orlando, Florida, where the 2019-20 season resumed on July 30 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. He describes it as a massive undertaking, but that so far the results have been good.

On Aug. 5, the NBA announced that all 343 players on-site tested negative for COVID-19 since the last test results on July 29. All NBA personnel and media on the grounds also tested negative, according to a league source.

“For a doctor, if it’s a prescription, I can write you the best medication that will more or less cure you,” Sims said. “But if you don’t buy into what I’m prescribing, you’re not going to take it. It’s not going to be effective. So, I have to find a way to connect with you to create a regimen that you understand and that you buy into to have the most success.”

Sims, who graduated from Stanford Medical School, joined the NBA in May 2018 and has worked for the Golden State Warriors, USA Track & Field and the U.S. Olympic Committee. He also practices emergency medicine at Mills-Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame, California. The following is a conversation with Sims about maintaining the NBA bubble, his start in the medical world and being an inspiration to Black doctors.

When did you know that the coronavirus was an issue?

So, in January, the NBA had our Global Game in Paris. The [Milwaukee] Bucks were playing over there, and I was over there doing medicine and we started to get information through our global security operations center. I got the call from our senior leadership to put together a briefing about this virus.

You have to remember that the NBA has offices all over the world. So, we have an office in Beijing, we have an office in Shanghai, Hong Kong. And so, we needed to get a grasp on what was happening and what we needed to know. …

That was the first encounter with it, not knowing that it was going to blossom into the pandemic that it was. But from that point, every few days we were doing updates to that medical brief.

How did the NBA start implementing its response to the pandemic after suspending the season on March 11?

The NBA, the thing that we do is we plan. We contingency plan and we contingency plan for the contingency plan. Kudos to our commissioner [Adam Silver] for having the leadership to decide, ‘OK, we can’t go further.’ But that was just a part of this big complex series of events that happened because we had to figure out how to get testing done, who to test, when, where. … It was a lot about so many moving pieces that day.

We had teams, obviously that were down in Oklahoma, but we had teams that were in Sacramento that were sort of in a similar boat. And so, people saw that one decision, Oklahoma City, but what was happening across the NBA and try to get an understanding of the impact on other players, teams, markets, was really what was happening that day.

How big of an undertaking has it been to build and run the “bubble”?

I liken it to my internship at Harbor-UCLA, working in the surgical ICU where you’re on call every three days and you’re in a hospital before 5 a.m. and you’re lucky if you’re at home after 10 p.m. and you’re 24-plus hours on call every third day. … During the first three weeks of July, I was getting up at 5-6 a.m. and I was going to bed between 2 and 3 a.m. And that was every day. …

So, this has been a massive undertaking. But really to pull this off and to have it be a success, we had to make sure that we were so completely thorough with the testing, the contingency planning. What happens if someone has coronavirus, what vehicle do you put them in to transport them. … If someone tests positive, how are they getting fed. … If someone was positive, can they continue to remain in the bubble or do we need to move them somewhere else. All of those things are in place.

And that’s just coronavirus, not to mention everything else that comes up. A player has a knee injury. What’s the imaging look like? Someone has to go off-site for a dental. What does that look like? And so, we worked through policies and protocols. If we have to get someone off-site, is there a way to do it by minimizing the exposure that they have in the community, knowing how many cases of coronavirus there are outside of our bubble?

We got our health and safety protocols out to infectious disease experts. … What’s the cleaning going to look like? How often should we wipe down? What should we wipe down with? Can we be spraying down? What does ventilation look like? How is the air circulating in the arena? How much time do we need in between games to wipe down the floors, get the locker room turnover? Should the players shower at the arena? Should they not? What’s the interaction with the media going to look like? All of those details that you have to think about and as it relates to your job or someone else’s job, we have to consider the medical.

How close are the chairs going to be? How many chairs are we going to have? Who wears a mask? What type of mask? … This 100-plus-page health and safety protocol, so much went into it.

Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates against the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the NBA Restart 2020 on August 1, 2020 at The Arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.

Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s the key to continued success?

I think we can celebrate the fact that we’ve been successful up until this point, but I don’t think that the final horn has sounded, and it’s not until then that we can really celebrate.

But how do we maintain the success? It’s by being vigilant, making sure that we’re doing the right thing, that we’re all being compliant. You’re wearing your mask. You keep your distance. I wear my mask. I keep my distance. I’m checking my symptoms, checking my temperature. I’m getting tested every day. I’m not going outside the boundaries of our perimeter. Like, that’s what keeps us there. But at the same time, it’s only human nature that as time goes on, you get a little bit lax.

What motivated you to want to be a doctor?

I’ve always had an interest in the medical world. It started at Head Start, there was a picture of me holding up a sign of what I want to be when I grew up and it was an EMT. I liked the ambulances. I liked the show ER, not the George Clooney ER, the old one before that. Driving fast, getting to the scene, the sirens being in the mix. I always liked that.

My mother worked for various rehabilitation institutes, nursing homes and Northwestern hospital as an LVN and a unit clerk. And sometimes I’d go to work with her and I got to roam around the hospital and just loved it. Sometimes at Northwestern I’d get in the elevator, close my eyes, push a button and just get off at a random floor and roam around as a kid. But I enjoyed just the hospital setting, being around the bells and the patients and the gurneys. That was something that just fascinated me.

Do you hope that when Black kids and kids of color see you, that you will be an inspiration to them?

The kids have to see people who look like them and it can’t just be from a distance. … They have to be able to touch you. And so, I can’t have as much impact being over there like, ‘Hey, that guy’s cool.’ I have to have an impact in person. I have to be someone they are close enough to.

And so absolutely, I believe in the pipeline. I believe that my success necessitates that I reach back and pull more people in. The biggest benefit I think of this job and this role that I have, is the opportunity to be present, be visible, but also to inspire up-and-coming physicians who are in emergency medicine, who are in sports medicine, minority physicians, women physicians.

What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring Black doctors?

I have two little girls and I think about what life is going to be like for them. And so, for me, that the legacy will be, ‘How many more can I inspire? How many more Black doctors can I encourage?’ We need it. We have to have it. When you look at just this pandemic, who are the people who are at the biggest disadvantage? People who are always marginalized. Black community. It’s mind-numbing that this continues to be an issue. And I get it. The people who are going to serve and going to give back will come from that community and we have to inspire.

And there’s a bigger medical world out there beyond just becoming a physician. We can inspire our young Black brothers and sisters to be nurses, chiropractors, pharmacists, doctors, dentists. There’s a lot in medicine that they can do. Technicians. And I tell them, ‘You don’t just have to be a doctor. You can be an athletic trainer, kinesiologist, biomedical engineer.’ There’s a lot there depending on what your interest is. If it’s medicine, that’s great, if it’s sports medicine, even better. And if I’m around long enough, I can give you a job.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.