Matisse Thybulle Is the Breakout (Mini-Movie) Star of the N.B.A. Bubble

Not long after the N.B.A. suspended its season in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Matisse Thybulle began looking for ways to occupy his time. He read books. He worked out. He also discovered TikTok, the video-sharing platform that seemed a natural fit for an avid photographer like himself.

He filmed himself dribbling around his apartment in his full Philadelphia 76ers uniform and building toy cars out of Legos. He even took his vacuum cleaner for a walk. The videos found a huge audience.

It turned out to be decent preparation for an even larger project on the horizon.

As the N.B.A. inches toward the resumption of its season later this month, the most revealing look inside its so-called bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., has been provided by one of its players. Thybulle, 23, a first-year guard for the 76ers, brought his camera with him, and he has been using it to produce a series of highly polished, 10-minute video diaries — “vlogs,” in the parlance of tech-savvy youth — that has raised the curtain on one of the league’s most ambitious experiments.

There are reveals, both big and small. A trip on the team bus to the airport. A panoramic view of the ballroom where the players are tested for the coronavirus. A glimpse inside the 76ers’ first full practice in months. And a tour of Thybulle’s hotel room, where he unpacks, delights in the various goodies the league has left for him (“Oh, snacks!”), and makes a failed attempt to launch the drone he got for Christmas off his balcony. (Disney is a no-fly zone.)

“I knew there would be a ton of buzz about basketball starting up and that this was something that people would be interested in,” Thybulle, 23, said in an interview this week. “But in my mind, I’m like, ‘Am I going to be able to present it to them in a way that’s actually entertaining?’”

He also wondered how the viewing public would receive him. It was all a bit terrifying.

“I didn’t know if they were going to like me,” he said.

His first vlog of the series, which he has entitled “Welcome to the Bubble,” began to go viral soon after he uploaded it to YouTube on Saturday. He said he knew he had done something right when Casey Neistat, a widely known YouTuber and content creator, retweeted him and offered to collaborate.

“I’ve loved his stuff,” Thybulle said. “So for him to tweet at me after I posted my first and second video was mind-blowing.”

Thybulle is doing it all: filming, directing, narrating, editing and, of course, starring alongside his teammates. It is a labor of love, he said. It took him about five hours to edit each of the first two vlogs. One of the problems, he said, was that he was swimming in footage after having succumbed to the urge to film everything. Now, he said, he has a better feel for what he ought to be capturing — and his teammates are all acting like Fellini.

“They’ll be like, ‘Get the camera!’” Thybulle said. “There is a certain amount of trust involved. This is a very intimate environment, and my teammates trust that I’m going to choose footage that puts people in the best light.”

Looks inside the first week of the N.B.A. bubble from Thybulle and other players like JaVale McGee of the Los Angeles Lakers, who has his own vlog series, are being produced amid a highly restrictive environment for the news media. Most of the reporters who have arrived on the Disney campus are still being quarantined in their hotel rooms as they undergo testing protocols, and even after they finish self-isolating for seven days, many areas will be off-limits to them.

The players have far more freedom, and Thybulle has been putting it to use. But while it may not be traditional journalism, his project does not feel contrived. Many of the most human moments are his exchanges with teammates. Kyle O’Quinn, a reserve forward, quickly emerges as one of the more personable figures. O’Quinn, for example, cannot get enough of a certain brand of cherry seltzer. He laments the lost art of human conversation. He recalls playing against Elton Brand, the 76ers’ general manager — and Grant Hill, who retired in 2013. There is a pregnant pause.

“You’re old,” Thybulle says to O’Quinn, who debuted in 2012.

Tobias Harris, one of the team’s starting forwards, moonlights as another one of Thybulle’s comedic foils. When the team undergoes a round of coronavirus testing, Thybulle focuses his camera on Harris from a distance. Thybulle gives him a thumbs up.

“Good job, T!” Thybulle shouts.

Harris appears to acknowledge Thybulle with a different hand gesture. (They are close friends.)

“I love it,” Ben Simmons, the team’s All-Star point guard, told reporters this week. “It’s a historic moment for sports in general, so I think what he’s been doing has been great.”

Thybulle’s introduction to photography came courtesy of his mother, Elizabeth Thybulle, who had a point-and-shoot camera when he was a child. She died of leukemia in 2015.

“So much of who I am was sculpted by her,” Thybulle said. “So putting myself out there like this and being who I am, and doing it on a large scale for a lot of people to see — that’s definitely something I think about. I feel that connection to her.”

Thybulle played four seasons at the University of Washington, where his interest in photography became more than a hobby. He always seemed to have his camera with him, and he was popular with teammates and classmates alike. Before practices, Thybulle would greet every person in the gym.

“He has so much depth,” said Mike Hopkins, who was hired as the team’s coach before Thybulle’s junior season. “People wait their whole life to coach a kid like that.”

ImageThybulle, who broke the Pac-12 Conference’s career steals record in college, has averaged 1.4 steals per game this season.
Credit…Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

As a senior, Thybulle became the Pac-12 Conference’s career steals leader and was named the national defensive player of the year.

A first-round draft pick in 2019, he has spent much of his rookie season with the 76ers trying to nudge his way into the rotation, averaging 4.7 points and 1.4 steals in 19.5 minutes a game. But his profile has never been higher, thanks to his vlogs.

“It’s dope,” Marquese Chriss, a center for the Golden State Warriors who played with Thybulle at Washington, said in a telephone interview. “And it’s so Matisse. If you know him, it’s his personality — the way he’s capturing everything. He’s just a super-relatable guy who happens to be good at basketball.”

Chriss, who roomed with Thybulle when they were college freshmen, recalled a conversation they shared a couple of years ago.

“We were just talking about basketball and life,” Chriss said. “And I was like, ‘Man, you could be doing all this basketball stuff and still take pictures, and eventually someone’s going to see it and it’s going to blow up because you’re going to have that platform.’”

Thybulle said he was still adjusting to the spotlight — and to the idea that he was suddenly sharing so much of himself with such a broad audience. But he is pouring himself into it, and for all the laughs he shares with teammates on the vlogs, there is an undercurrent of wide-eyed wonder that he is somehow a part of this strange scene.

So, in various frames, he settles into the hotel room he’ll live in for the foreseeable future. He lights a candle to make the room feel more like “home.” He pulls from one of his suitcases a stack of “light reads for nighttime,” books that range from Wayne W. Dyer’s “Wisdom of the Ages” to W. Timothy Gallwey’s “The Inner Game of Tennis.” He fills his closet with T-shirts and sneakers, organizing his shoes with a snap of his fingers through the moviemaking magic of jump cuts.

He also notices that his pillowcases are monogrammed. He zooms in on his initials and uniform number, 22.

“That’s crazy,” he says. “That’s how you know you’ve made it.”

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