The NBA's New Identity Crisis

Some are learning to cook. Some are cleaning closets. Some are building 2,000-piece puzzles. The NBA hiatus has players trying to figure out what they like to do when they're not playing hoops.
photo of Yaron WeitzmanYaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2020

Cody Zeller was wandering the aisles of a supermarket the other day. It was a rare trip outside the home for the Charlotte Hornets center.

In the wake of the current coronavirus pandemic, Zeller, like so many others across the country, had been practicing social distancing and living a mostly quarantined life. But he needed food. The frozen casseroles and enchiladas his mother had left in his freezer were running low. He was growing sick of the Chick-fil-A drive-thru.

He stopped in the frozen meats section. A package of scallops caught his eye. He had never cooked scallops before.

"But as NBA players, I think we all think we can just pick things up naturally," Zeller said.

He brought the scallops home. He cued up some Gordon Ramsay YouTube videos. The recipes all called for olive oil. Zeller didn't have any. The recipes called for pepper. He didn't have any of that, either. But this was no time to turn back.

A few days earlier, he had pledged to learn something new every day he was stuck at home. He tried the guitar. He spent more than an hour watching YouTube videos on how to build an outdoor deck. "Mine's a bit dated," he said. On this night, the thing he was set to learn was how to cook scallops. It didn't matter how many ingredients he was missing.

"I still tried to make them," Zeller said. "It's good I had some stuff from my mom still left in the fridge."

Zeller knows he and his NBA peers are fortunate. Their jobs aren't in jeopardy. Their paychecks are still coming in (for now, at least). He's thankful for that. But that's also forced him, and the rest of the NBA's player pool, to deal with a problem that's confronted privileged citizens everywhere: How do you pass the time when you aren't allowed to do your job?

For the majority, the answer appears to be by playing video games or choreographing TikToks. Some, however, have taken Zeller's approach. Thanks to a mix of isolation and boredom, they're using their newfound free time to take up some new pursuits. 

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"Even during the offseason, you don't really have any moments to spend alone with yourself," Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter said. "I figured I'd to use it to educate myself."

Part of that is because he's never played video games.

"I don't even have an Xbox or PlayStation in my home," Kanter said. "I kind of regret that now."

Instead, he watched an episode of the Netflix show Dirty Money about how Donald Trump built his empire. He tore through a few Turkish tomes. He recently opened Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don't, a book by Simon Sinek that Celtics head coach Brad Stevens handed out to the team earlier this season. He was giddy the other day about an upcoming Zoom lecture the Celtics had set up with a Harvard professor.

"The only person I get to see is the Uber Eats delivery guys," Kanter said. "I always want to invite him into the apartment just to have a conversation."

Even avid video game players such as Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo have found themselves searching for ways to fill their days.

"I cleaned my whole house, and it wasn't even dirty," he said.

He and his girlfriend swept and scrubbed and mopped. They also went through every item of clothing in every drawer and closet and stray suitcase. DiVincenzo discovered some gems he'd forgotten, like a T-shirt from his days at Villanova celebrating the team's moms. There were also items that he'd both never worn and knew he never would. Some still had their tags. He packed up about 40 pairs of sneakers and six bags of clothing and dropped them off at the local Salvation Army and Goodwill.

Initially, DiVincenzo found all the free time liberating. "I was staying up late playing video games and sleeping late," he said. But before long, he was craving a schedule.

He's tried going to sleep earlier. On the Bucks' recommendation, he's used a food delivery service to stay on top of his nutrition. He's set up a home gym in his townhouse's one-car garage—"It's cold in there, but it's kind of different and cool"—using an exercise bike, squat rack, bench and dumbbells delivered by the Bucks (via a strength coach's pickup truck). He speaks to Bucks officials every day and keeps up with his teammates via a group chat, who he can tell are just as bored as he is.

"We're basically just sending each other memes, TikToks and tweets," he said. 

Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner is also trying to find some sense of structure. He plays video games. He works out every day, beginning his mornings with a 2-3 mile run before getting in some strength work. He'll show up for a few Call of Duty battle royales. He'll cycle through Netflix, Hulu and Disney+.

That still leaves him hunting for ways to kill hours at a time. So he'll often retreat to the guest house of the Dallas home he recently built for his parents—where he's now staying—and spend a few hours working on a 2,000-piece Star Wars puzzle.

"It's something I've always wanted to do," he said.

Next, he has some multi-thousand-piece Star Wars Lego spaceships he'd like to build, which he plans on adding to his Lego collection that he has back in his Indianapolis home.

Myles Turner has filled much of his idle time during the NBA's hiatus working on his video game skills as well as his puzzle-building prowess at his family's home in Dallas.
Myles Turner has filled much of his idle time during the NBA's hiatus working on his video game skills as well as his puzzle-building prowess at his family's home in Dallas.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Despite his struggle to fill idle time, Turner recognizes his life could be a lot more complicated.

"We all miss basketball, but we also realize how lucky we are and how there are so many more concerns that are so much more important," he said.

Still, for Turner and his NBA brethren, there are hours, days, weeks and maybe months to fill until the league returns. So for now, he turns to completing that puzzle and thinking about what's next.

"My mom's into sewing," Turner said. "I'd like to see what that's about."


Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.