The Life of Barbers in the NBA Bubble – Sports Illustrated

On Aug. 5, Will Rondo called Natasha Conner, a barber based out of Milwaukee. At that point, Rondo, the older brother of Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo, had been in the NBA’s bubble for weeks. As the man entrusted with organizing the league’s grooming services during its stint on Disney’s campus, he knew he needed to find a solution for the increased demand in haircuts. “Your talent and photos speak for themselves,” Rondo told Conner. “And I would love to invite you for an opportunity to showcase your skills on a national level.”
Conner accepted his offer. And just days after being given the assignment, she traveled to Orlando to begin her highest-profile job yet. In doing so, she became the seventh barber to join the NBA’s campus and the first woman of the group. Like trainers, nutritionists and physical therapists, the group is integral in getting players ready to compete.
“We’ve had a couple players tell me just in the last couple days that this is essential,” Rondo says.
Courtesy of the NBA
In addition to the now seven barbers, there are also three hair braiders and three manicurists on-site in the bubble. Grooming services are available at all three hotel properties, including the “Pop Up Shop” at The Grand Floridian, which went viral on social media upon its construction. In the case of the other hotels, executive suites have been adjoined to create ample space for those who frequent them. Vibes vary between rooms, and in-shop entertainment is customized to player requests. While the grooming professionals work lengthy days, they recognize the uniqueness of the opportunity they’ve been presented.
“It’s so surreal,” Sedric Salinas, one of the barbers in the bubble recently said. “Every day it still hits me in a different way.”
Weeks after the NBA halted its regular season, Rondo learned of the league’s possible restart plans. Rondo, who in 2009 founded Global Concierge Services, a company that helps provide athletes and celebrities with various personal services, wanted to contribute to was going to be a historic period in the sport’s history.
Around that time, he emailed National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts a list of 15 things he thought could be of use in the bubble. When Roberts responded to Rondo’s inquiry, she said she was especially interested in learning more about possible grooming services.
“When a player looks good, they feel good,” he told Roberts. “And when they feel good, they play good.”
Bringing that mantra to life, however, required a thorough search-process.
Initially, Rondo compiled a list of 50 of the best barbers in the industry. Then, through a series of intense conversations with the barbers, the NBPA, NBA and individual players, he whittled the list down to a select few, each of whom has multiple years of experience cutting NBA players' hair.
Courtesy of the NBA
Marcos “Reggae” Smith journeyed to the bubble from New York City, while Mo Rodriguez traveled north from Miami. Both Daniel Thomas and Willie Brooks came from Los Angeles and Salinas from the Bay Area. Conner recently arrived from Milwaukee. Joel Padilla is from Orlando.
“It’s great that they thought about having this option for us,” Magic guard D.J. Augustin said, while getting a haircut from Padilla.
“I got a lot of guys who cut me in different cities, I just like good people and guys that perfect their craft. Good barbers that pride in what they do. And he’s definitely one of those guys.”
The NBPA and NBA pay the barbers a flat rate, though, they also accept tips from players they cut. And in terms of equipment, the barbers have anything they would want at their disposal, from hot towel machines and lather machines to Bevel trimmers and shave kits.
So while they work six days per week, it’s an appealing assignment in that 300 of their top clientele are in one, singular place.
“A once in a lifetime opportunity to do what I love at the highest level,” Smith wrote on an Instagram post showcasing a recent cut he provided to Heat rookie Tyler Herro.
Like everything else in the bubble, health and safety has also been a priority. Barbers had to quarantine. And they wear masks and face shields while giving clients disposable capes. All spaces used also go through multiple, two-hour cleanings per day during hours of operation. Appointments are additionally booked digitally and must be done in advance, in order to prevent large gatherings within the barbershops themselves.
Not surprisingly, Rondo says, there was an uptick in appointments around the start of the regular season. Now that the postseason has gotten underway and games are broadcast on national TV, interest continues to boom.
“New playoffs, new ‘do, new fits, new shoes, new swag,” he says. “Everybody’s turning the switch on. … Everybody has to be on their game.”
Celtics All-Star forward Jayson Tatum arrived in the Orlando bubble sporting a long, curly haircut—a departure from his usual tight buzz. And while the 22-year-old said he wanted to cut his hair before Boston’s first seeding game against the Grizzlies, his mother and grandmother convinced him otherwise. “They wanted me to at play a game or two with them,” he told reporters in early August.
The curly-haired Tatum played arguably his worst-ever professional game in the C’s bubble-opener against the Bucks, shooting just 2-for-18 from the field, recording a mere five points. He got a cut ahead of the team’s next contest. Whether you think it’s a coincidence or not, the Duke product scored 34 points and dished out eight assists in his first game back with short hair, a 128-124 win over the Blazers.
“Gotta be the haircut,” Jazz star Donovan Mitchell tweeted after Boston’s win.
“Do we have to say any more?” Rondo asks. “…When you look in the mirror and that guy in the mirror is smiling. It definitely makes you feel better.”
With the first round of the postseason now in full swing, more eyeballs will be watching to see how the league’s top players perform. But with every TV close-up after a ferocious dunk or deep three-pointer, the work of the seven barbers lucky enough to be in Orlando will also be on full display.
“The world gets to see their talent,” Rondo says.
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