Being in the NBA bubble, official Zach Zarba now sees the world differently
A lack of fans has increased intensity, competition and the focus on Black Lives Matter
“There is a serious tone in here and an acknowledgment about what’s going on in this country.”
— NBA official Zach Zarba
I first met Zach Zarba in July 2016 when the sports world seemed invincible and secure.
He was entering his 14th season as an NBA official, coming off an exciting NBA Finals and enjoying the three-month offseason with his wife and two sons.
Four years later, COVID-19 has turned our lives inside out and had put the NBA out of commission for nearly five months.
“Never in a million years would you think about something like this happening. You just would never think something like COVID would happen. It’s been wild and strange,” said Zarba.
He spoke to me last week from the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, where the league began a historic undertaking to salvage its season.
Zarba arrived in Orlando on July 12 with 44 other NBA officials. He has been officiating games at all levels and every manner of conditions since he was 24 years old. This experience is unprecedented.
“Everyone wants to know what is it like,” he said. “It’s great. It’s hard being away from family, but what they’ve done here is nothing short of amazing. It’s probably one of the safest places on Earth — at least in the United States.” At the time we spoke, Zarba said he had been tested nearly 40 consecutive days with both the mouth and nasal swabs.
The visible social justice component of the games in Orlando has distinguished the tournament. At the very least, it gives the games depth and richness.
The bubble games began on July 30. Zarba officiated the first game and took part in an unprecedented demonstration of unity when players, team officials and referees knelt during the playing of the national anthem. NBA commissioner Adam Silver had announced the league would waive a long-standing rule that required players to stand.
While we can argue the merits of being given permission to kneel, the opening day act of unity had a profound effect on Zarba and a galvanizing effect on many of those participating in the NBA tournament.
“That first night and subsequent night — proud is how I would describe being, being able to be part of that,” he said.
Even before he left for Orlando, Zarba and his wife had their eyes opened to the realities of economic inequity that along with social justice are the lynchpins of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Beginning in March, when the pandemic hit with full force, schools were closed and Zarba and his wife were able to take care of their two children, ages 6 and 8, by sharing duties. Zarba would do the home schooling in the morning. In the afternoon, Zarba worked out, did his video breakdowns three times a week and got on Zoom calls with other officials.
But how could a single parent, especially one with limited economic means, keep up? With no iPad, limited internet, not even a printer, these households epitomized the uneven playing field.
“That part blew our minds — actually, it opened our minds,” he said.
But even inside the bubble, there are reminders that Black people, regardless of stature, are not immune from police violence and misconduct.
Last week, Toronto Raptors team president Masai Ujiri countersued a San Francisco deputy officer and pointed to video evidence showing that the officer forcefully shoved him last spring as he attempted to join the team after they won the NBA title.
In Orlando, Zarba said there were poignant conversations among the officials themselves about social justice issues and some of the barriers many of his colleagues were forced to overcome.
“We have referees who are 60 years old and have seen some things in their lives,” Zarba said. “Guys spoke their truth. It was eye-opening. The more I listened, the more I realized how much I don’t know.”
In Orlando, the resort laid out the red carpet for everyone connected with the NBA. There was access to golf courses and various amenities. The atmosphere of Black Lives Matter, messages on the court and messages on players’ jerseys reminded everyone that they were indeed in a bubble.
“We understand that this is the NBA bubble and this does not really represent what is going on in the country,” he said.
After the second day, most players and officials continued to kneel, but some did not. “I chose to kneel. I choose to kneel,” Zarba said. “That’s my decision.”
The NBA bubble combines elements of summer league games, reality TV and the NBA 2K games that young people in the esports and recreation program at my church endlessly play: piped-in crowd noise, virtual fans, great music and familiar broadcasters. The only element missing is real players. The bubble has taken care of that.
“That’s been strange,” Zarba said of refereeing in the bubble atmosphere. “The NBA has built the game for a home viewer. When you’re out there, though, you do feel like you’re in a reality TV show. You’re onstage: It’s dark, everywhere, the lights are on you and there are no fans. So, that part is strange.”
This brings us to the most peculiar dynamic of the bubble: the fanless arena. I do not miss the fans. Fans have become too emboldened, too entitled. They needed to be temporarily put out of the arena, if for no other reason than to gain an appreciation of players.
Zarba wants them back.
“You miss the fans. You miss the juice and energy they bring,” he said. “You have intensity, but you don’t have fans.”
Is it not a relief for an official to do the job without the hassle of being booed and jeered? Did he really miss the “Ref, you suck” chants? “Yes,” he said. “They bring energy to the game that, to a person in here, people say that’s a huge thing that’s missing.”
On the other hand, officials in the bubble now realize than fan noise masked chatter from players that the referees seldom heard. Now they hear the chatter and it’s taking some getting used to.
“One of the funniest things for the referees is that you can hear so many things that the crowd might normally drown out,” Zarba said. “You can hear the benches a lot. We’ve had to adjust to that because you hear everything.”
The banter is different. “It’s different from fans,” Zarba said. “The guys talk to each other. The guys talk to the other team. They’re talking to you. They’re reacting. They’re joking — sometimes.”
He added: “It doesn’t rise to the standard of needing to do something. The difference is that it’s so loud and you hear it because there are no fans.”
But even Zarba agrees that the lack of fans hasn’t hurt the level of intensity and competition.
“The 22 teams that have come here brought it,” he said. “They’re not mailing it in. They haven’t come here to get it over with. This is a new experience and all eyes are on us in here. Everybody’s watching and everybody knows it. It’s that kind of stage, so there’s an intensity to that.”
When the NBA floated the idea of continuing its season in a bubble, there was concern the games would divert attention from protests outside the bubble. So far, they have not.
“There’s a real feeling of using this platform, whether you are a player or a coach or an official, to express yourself,” Zarba said. “If you can’t speak out, or you feel like you’re not going to speak out, you are almost giving consent to so much of the inequality and social injustice that occurs.”
In a league dominated by Black players, the image of George Floyd having the life choked out of him, the coldblooded killing of Breonna Taylor and the vigilante shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery are too chilling to be pushed aside by basketball games.