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Disney World “clear frontrunner” to host remainder of NBA season: Q&A with Keith Smith, originator of the idea

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Orlando could soon become the center of the basketball universe

NBA Experience Grand Opening Photo by Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

Orlando could soon become the center of the basketball universe for the first time since...well, ever.

Shams Charania of The Athletic reported on Wednesday that Disney World in Orlando is the clear frontrunner to host the NBA when and if the season resumes...

This idea was first proposed by Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports and CelticsBlog in mid-April, when he explained why Disney World would be the ideal spot for the NBA to salvage its season. His story went viral, the idea gained quite a bit of traction, and at some point reached the desk of Adam Silver.

So, with the circus potentially coming to town here in Orlando, we thought it would be the perfect time to sit down for a Q&A with Keith, who in addition to providing insightful NBA content, and being a great follow on Twitter (@KeithSmithNBA), was also a longtime employee of Disney...

OPP: Just to give a little background, what was your role with Disney?

Smith: I worked for Disney for nearly 20 years. I started as an intern on the College Program and worked as a train conductor on the Walt Disney World Railroad at Magic Kingdom. After finishing in school, I came back and started working for Disney full time. I held many different roles, most in backstage capacities. My wife and I even spent a year and a half working at Disneyland in California.


OPP: What made you think that Disney was the ideal location for the NBA to resume play?

Smith: To me there are three key components:

1. The hotels for housing the players. Walt Disney World has that covered fairly easily with over 30 resorts on their property.

2. The basketball facilities, and not just for playing games. You also need them for practices and shootarounds. Everywhere else mentioned was going to have to create some level of basketball facilities. At the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (EWWS), Walt Disney World has those facilities already in place.

3. The ability to create a “bubble”. Now, this term has mixed thoughts, but the general idea is to keep the personnel fairly isolated (if not entirely isolated) from the general public. Because Walt Disney World is private property, they can do that easier than most places.


OPP: What hosting advantages do you think Disney has over Las Vegas?

Smith: It’s a combination of No. 2 and No. 3 above. Disney already has all the necessary basketball facilities. They aren’t converting convention space or anything like that. The second is the private property factor. That ability to control access and movement can’t be overstated in its importance.


OPP: Do you see the Magic’s facilities being used in any way despite being outside the bubble?

Smith: Not really. I could see the Magic being called upon to provide training and medical equipment, because they are close by. But the basketball facilities are far enough way that it means expanding the bubble more than necessary.


OPP: With so many teams needing practices and shootarounds in a secluded setting, how do you envision that being managed?

Smith: EWWS has three primary indoor facilities that would be the hub of this. I assume two would be set up for games. The third is a giant, customization space. I think they lay out courts in there for practices and possibly shootarounds. They would then develop a schedule, as well. And, if necessary, Disney could convert some of their own convention space into practices areas if needed.


OPP: How would Disney handle the employees needed on premise to make this work?

Smith: I think the Cast Members (Disney lingo for employee) would be “quarantined” in with the NBA personnel if necessary. You’ll need front desk/hospitality folks, food services, custodial, housekeeping and others. Requiring them to quarantine seems like a big ask, but it’s not all that unfamiliar for many Cast Members. Whenever there is a hurricane, thousands of Cast Members shelter in place and ride out to the storm to take care of guests on property at the time. This is that, just longer. In addition, so many are out of work and have been for months, that they would jump at the opportunity to work.


OPP: What do you see as the biggest remaining complications for Disney hosting the NBA?

Smith: Testing, testing, testing. They have to make sure it can be done. And, more importantly, they have to make sure it can be done without taking testing capability away from those who actually need it. Beyond that, it’s all the logistics. Where, when, how? The why and who are already answered. Now it’s about the details.


OPP: What would it all mean for the eventual re-opening of Disney World?

Smith: I don’t think it has a huge impact. Walt Disney World is likely to have a slow, staggered re-opening. Right now, all eyes are on Shanghai Disneyland. The entire theme park industry is drawing key learnings from their re-opening. WDW will re-open, but it’s likely to be only one park initially and only some hotels. The demand won’t be there for more than that. Beyond that, EWWS is fairly isolated from the rest of the property. Disney could take one of their lesser-used resorts (Coronado Springs?) and use it for the housing. That wouldn’t impact re-opening to paying guests all that much.


OPP: Do you feel that a championship under these playing conditions would be devalued in any way?

Smith: No. It’s an even playing field. It’ll always be referred to as “Remember 2020 with that weird pause?” just like lockout seasons are talked about. But it’ll still be a real champion.


OPP: What’s your prediction for the Magic in the postseason (assuming there is one)?

Smith: If they stay in the 8 spot, it’s going to be really tough for them to beat the Bucks. Same if they move up to 7 and take on the Raptors. Maybe they can take a game, but the best hope is to be competitive. If, and it’s unlikely, first round series are shortened, the chances of pulling an upset increase greatly. So, maybe hope for that?


OPP: Any secrets about Disney World you can share?

Smith: Secrets? Hmm. Come in the offseasons if you want to have an enjoyable time without crazy long waits. I always tell people to come in the fall. It’s beautiful weather then and the crowds aren’t so bad. As for secrets about property, not really. A fact that seems to be lesser-known is just how big the property is. Walt Disney World is 39 square miles. That’s twice the size of Manhattan and roughly the same size as San Francisco!


OPP: If this happens, how will it feel to be the man who saved the NBA?

Smith: Hahaha! I think I was just the first one to put the idea on paper. Mostly, I just want basketball back! If I played even a small role in that happening, then I’m thrilled!


Thank you once again to Keith for taking the time to speak with us. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @KeithSmithNBA.