Dwight Howard was jogging off the court before the game when a tiny 23-year-old woman with a long floppy ponytail darted past him into the halls of the arena. She wore blue sneakers and black shorts with a black T-shirt with white letters that read “Black Lives Matter,” the uniform for team attendants in the NBA’s bubble.
Her name is Stefani Yamasaki and when she re-emerged onto the court, she jogged into the Lakers’ bench area carrying a towering stack of white towels. The Lakers were planning to kneel for the national anthem and experience had taught them they needed some cushion under their knees.
The Lakers are more accustomed to seeing her at Staples Center where she and her brother, Jayson, work for the Lakers as team attendants.
“It’s a little bit of familiarity from seeing them run around like at Staples and help us out pregame,” guard Alex Caruso said.
In the bubble, the Yamasakis are two of the 55 team attendants brought into the bubble to help teams who had to leave much of their support staff at home. They live at the Coronado Springs Casitas and typically work one game a day. They’re broken up into smaller groups and each group has a randomized schedule, working with different teams every day, growing their own networks and making new friends.
“It’s been probably one of the best experiences ever,” Stefani said. “You can’t even replicate this. All of our higher-ups have been telling us, ‘You’re going to be a part of history.’ This is something that people will just aspire to hear about, to be a part of. I’m eternally grateful.”
Twenty of the attendants work with NBA teams during normal times and 35 of them work with USA Basketball.
“USA Basketball is going to have a return to play and all of that stuff and we’ll be able to do that because we were here,” said Ellis Dawson, who is the assistant director for national teams, and was scheduled to be in Tokyo this month for the Olympics.
Team attendants are often referred to as “ball boys” or “ball girls,” but their responsibilities are much more than rebounding during warmups or wiping sweat off the court. They help equipment managers set up before games. They help players as they get on and off the bench providing the right type of clothing, collecting their warmups right before they check into a game, even making sure the gum a player likes is available when he wants it.
Here, they had to learn new protocols and had to plan for a months-long stay.
“The way we look at it, you never want to say no; no I can’t do that,” said Rodney Powell, the Orlando Magic’s director of team operations, who is in charge of the team attendants in the bubble. “There’s a lot of things here in the bubble they have to say, ‘No you can’t do that.”
Things like mixing Gatorade bottles for players and preparing ice buckets in the arenas are forbidden.
Stefani was at a Sparks game nine years ago while a student at North High in Torrance. She encountered the equipment manager, who offered her a job as a team attendant. Later, she began working for the South Bay Lakers, who were then called the Los Angeles D-Fenders, and Jayson joined her.
On Jan. 1, 2017, they worked their first Lakers game.
“It was a holiday, we had family coming over, but we wanted to put the Lakers first,” said Jayson who, like his sister, grew up a Lakers fan.
Their work ethic and attitude quickly impressed then-longtime Lakers equipment manager Carlos Maples. When Andrew Henk was hired to replace Maples last summer, other staffers urged him to keep the Yamasakis on his staff.
“They helped me out a lot this year, being my first year working at Staples Center, working with the Lakers,” Henk said. “There’s just a lot of little things that they helped me with along the way that I wouldn’t be as successful as I was this year without them.”
For games, Stefani would drive back and forth from La Jolla, where she attended UC San Diego. She’d often get home around 2 or 3 a.m. and have early morning classes.
“Not much,” she said. “But it’s OK.”
Said Caruso, when told of Stefani’s schedule: “That’s incredible. I didn’t know that.”
A double major in Japanese studies and human biology, she has thought about medical school and has wondered if she’d be able to be a team doctor in the NBA someday. She’s made contacts through her job to learn more about that, but being in the bubble has delayed her plans a bit.
Jayson, a mechanical engineering major at Long Beach State, scheduled his classes in the morning so they wouldn’t conflict with Lakers games. He’s taking two summer courses now —studying on his days off —in hopes that it will lighten his schedule during the school year to make time for Laker games.
“I think everyone’s dream would be to work for an NBA team,” he said. “But having that degree in any field or having a degree in general will kind of be, it’s like a nice safety.”
The games in the bubble take about six or seven hours of their day. Outside of games, they’ve gone to the pool, gone fishing, seen familiar faces and made friends with other team attendants. They’re rarely around so many people who understand this unique job.
They’ve enjoyed seeing players and coaches they’ve worked with in the past.
“It’s kind of cool to see when they go to different teams they still remember us,” said Stefani, who typically works the Lakers’ side while Jayson works with the visiting team.
Said Henk: “She’s kind of the first face that all the players see. ‘Stef I need my warmup, Stef I need a drink, Stef I need my ace wraps or heat pack or whatever’. They know her from that perspective. She’s the first face they see when they get off the court.”
With masks on in the bubble not every player has recognized her, but Henk has noticed some do. The other day he heard LeBron James call out her name to ask for her help with something.
Otherwise, they work in relative anonymity contributing one piece to what makes the bubble work.