NBA star Mason Plumlee on COVID and life inside the Orlando ‘bubble’


Editor’s Note: This transcript from the August 20 episode of the Blood & Cancer podcast has been edited for clarity. Click this link to listen to the full episode.

David Henry, MD: Welcome to this Blood & Cancer podcast. I’m your host, Dr. David Henry. This podcast airs on Thursday morning each week. This interview and others are archived with show notes from our residents at Pennsylvania Hospital at this link.

Each week we interview key opinion leaders involved in various aspects of blood and cancer. Today, we have a different kind of key opinion leader, as I have the privilege of interviewing Mason Plumlee, a forward with the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Denver Nuggets. Mason was a first round pick in the NBA, a gold medalist for the U.S. men’s national team, and NBA All-Rookie first team honoree. He’s one of the top playmaking forwards in the country, if not the world, in my opinion. In his four-year college career at Duke University, he helped lead the Blue Devils to a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship and twice earned All-America first team academic honors at Duke. So he’s not just a basketball star, but an academic star as well. Mason, thanks so much for taking some time out from the bubble in Florida to talk with us today.

Mason Plumlee: Thanks for having me on. I’m happy to be here.

Henry: Beginning in March, the NBA didn’t know what to do about the COVID pandemic but finally decided to put you professional players in a ‘bubble.’ What did you have to go through to get there? You, your teammates, coaches, trainers, etc. And what’s the ongoing plan to be sure you continue to be safe?

Plumlee: Back to when the season shut down in March, the NBA shut down the practice facilities at the same time. Most people went home. I went back to Indiana. And then, as the idea of this bubble came up and the NBA formalized a plan to start the season again, players started to go back to market. I went back to Denver and was working out there.

About two weeks before we were scheduled to arrive in Orlando, they started testing us every other day. They used the deep nasal swab as well as the throat swab. But they were also taking two to three blood tests in that time period. You needed a certain number of consecutive negative tests before they would allow you to fly on the team plane down to Orlando. So there was an incredible amount of testing in the market. Once you got to Orlando, you went into a 48-hour quarantine. You had to have two negative tests with 48 hours between them before you could leave your hotel room.

Since then, it’s been quite strict down here. And although it’s annoying in a lot of ways, I think it’s one of the reasons our league has been able to pull this off. We’ve had no positive tests within the bubble and we are tested every day. A company called BioReference Laboratories has a setup in one of the meeting rooms here, and it’s like clockwork—we go in, we get our tests. One of my teammates missed a test and they made him stay in his room until he could get another test and get the results, so he missed a game because of that.

Henry: During this bubble time, no one has tested positive—players, coaches, staff?

Plumlee: Correct.

Henry: That’s incredible, and it’s allowed those of us who want to watch the NBA and those of you who are in it professionally to continue the sport. It must be a real nuisance for you and your family and friends, because no one can visit you, right?

Plumlee: Right. There’s no visitation. We had one false positive. It was our media relations person and the actions they took when that positive test came in -- they quarantined him in his room and interviewed everybody he had talked to; they tested anyone who had any interaction with him and those people had to go into quarantine. They’re on top of things down here. In addition to the testing, we each have a pulse oximeter and a thermometer, and we use these to check in everyday on an app. So, they’re getting all the insight they need. After the first round of the playoffs, they’re going to open the bubble to friends and family, but those friends and family will be subject to all the same protocols that we were coming in and once they’re here as well.

Henry: I’m sure you’ve heard about the Broadway star [Nick Cordero] who was healthy and suddenly got sick, lost a leg, and then lost his life. There have been some heart attacks that surprised us. Have your colleagues—players, coaches, etc.—been worried? Or are they thinking, what’s the big deal? Has the sense of how serious this is permeated through this sport?

Plumlee: The NBA is one of the groups that has heightened the understanding and awareness of this by shutting down. I think a lot of people were moving forward as is, and then, when the NBA decided to cancel the season, it let the world know, look, this is to be taken seriously.

Henry: A couple of players did test positive early on.

Plumlee: Exactly. A couple of people tested positive. I think at the outset, the unknown is always scarier. As we’ve learned more about the virus, the guys have become more comfortable. You know, I tested positive back in March. At the time, a loss of taste and smell was not a reported symptom.

Henry: And you had that?

Plumlee: I did have that, but I didn’t know what to think. More research has come out and we have a better understanding of that. I think most of the players are comfortable with the virus. We’re at a time in our lives where we’re healthy, we’re active, and we should be able to fight it off. We know the numbers for our age group. Even still, I think nobody wants to get it. Nobody wants to have to go through it. So why chance it?

Henry: Hats off to you and your sport. Other sports such as Major League Baseball haven’t been quite so successful. Of course, they’re wrestling with the players testing positive, and this has stopped games this season.

I was looking over your background prior to the interview and learned that your mother and father have been involved in the medical arena. Can you tell us about that and how it’s rubbed off on you?


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