Imagining the NBA's New Reality: A Return to Play Without Fans

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2020

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Think about the most iconic NBA playoff moments of recent years: Damian Lillard's series-winning shots against the Oklahoma City Thunder last spring and against the Houston Rockets in 2014, Kawhi Leonard's buzzer-beating walk-off in Game 7 last year to help the Toronto Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers, Kyrie Irving's series-clinching shot in the 2016 Finals to help the Cleveland Cavaliers secure their first title in franchise history.

They were great shots on their own merits, sure. But what made them incredible moments that will be replayed forever were the crowd reactions. If they had taken place in empty arenas, with the same stakes—a championship on the line—but without the fanfare of the NBA's entertainment product, would they resonate as deeply?

That's the puzzle the league will have to solve as it navigates a path back toward resuming the 2019-20 season in the thick of the global COVID-19 pandemic that doesn't appear to be letting up anytime soon.

Much is still unknown about if, let alone how, the NBA will return this summer. What is certain, though, is that the games will be in empty gyms without fans. According ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Adam Silver told the NBPA the league "would restart this season without fans in venues, and Silver held out the possibility on the call that it could also be possible for the start of the 2020-21 season."

On Wednesday, Wojnarowski reported Orlando and Las Vegas are the two most likely sites for the season to resume in mid-July. That will include whatever the NBA can salvage of the regular season, as well as the entire playoffs and Finals.

For the sake of the record books, everything will count the same. For the players, it couldn't be more different from the spectacle of an NBA game-day production: crowd noise, loud music, constant light and video effects, between-quarter distractions.

"I don't know if I've ever done that before," Lillard says. "I played in a small conference [in college at Weber State], so I've played in some empty gyms. And in high school, I played in a few empty gyms, too. I've done it, but it would be so much different [in the NBA]. 

"When I was in high school, we didn't think anybody had a reason to just show up to our games. Now, we're in the NBA. This is the best of the best. We pack crowds and we play in front of thousands and thousands of fans. So for us to be able to have that same energy, warm up, play music before the game and stuff like that, and then we get there and it's just us against them and the referees, that would be weird."

Some NBA-adjacent events have taken place without fans in recent years. The Long Island Nets, Brooklyn's G League affiliate, played most of their home games in 2016-17 in an empty Barclays Center due to a delay in opening their own arena. From 2002 to 2017, a handful of NBA teams participated in the Orlando Pro Summer League, a much smaller operation than the flagship Las Vegas tournament, which wasn't open to the public and had an audience consisting entirely of scouts, team executives and members of the media.

Back in his Euroleague days, Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic played a game without a crowd due to an incident with a fan throwing something onto the court.

"To be honest, it was not fun," Marjanovic says. "It was like a practice, but like a game. You still focus on winning the game, but you need the extra wind in the back to push you and give you energy that basketball is all about. When you hear the fans, hearing everyone cheer your name, say something good to you, you feel awesome."

But G League and summer-league games are much lower-stakes affairs than the NBA playoffs. All season long, fans have been looking forward to a potential "Battle of Los Angeles" Western Conference Finals series between the Lakers and Clippers. The tenor of that matchup will change drastically if it's taken out of a sold-out Staples Center and dropped into a quarantined bubble in Orlando or Las Vegas.

It will force the broadcast teams at ESPN and Turner to think outside the box with their approach to camera angles and commentary format.

"The difference will be going into commercials and coming out of it," says Kenny Smith, the longtime analyst on TNT's Inside the NBA. "That's when we really pay attention to who's in the stands and their reactions. But when the game is going on, the game is on the court. The cameras are on the court. So that wouldn't change. But when you go to commercial and a guy's just made a great play, you see 20,000 people react to that play. That's where it's different, and that will be an unusual circumstance. You have to be really ingenious and creative to come up with something for that."

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Other sports leagues that have already returned to play have attempted to replicate the live-crowd experience. Baseball games in Taiwan have featured robot fans. Like every other detail of the NBA's plan, it remains to be seen whether the Association will attempt something similar.

"For me, I don't need that visualization," says Smith, who played in the NBA for 10 seasons and won two championships with the Houston Rockets in 1993-94 and 1994-95. "As a player, I hear [the fans], but it's one unit. I hear the emotion of everyone collectively. Very rarely as a player am I focusing on individual people in the stands. So my game wouldn't change. But my energy can pick up tremendously through fans. I can jump three or four inches higher. I'm a better athlete because they're in the arena. But am I more skilled? Not necessarily. The adrenaline makes me a better athlete."

The lack of a crowd may also have an effect on communication between players during games. Players talk all the time on the court. In an empty arena, their voices will carry.

Will some of the league's most notorious on-court trash-talkers (say, Patrick Beverley or Draymond Green) have to be conscious of their language if what they say may be heard on a TV broadcast that the league will want to keep family-friendly? And will that take away some of their psychological advantages?

"I talk a lot on defense," Charlotte Hornets center Bismack Biyombo says. "If my teammates can hear me when I'm talking with fans in the building, how is that going to sound in an empty arena?"

The aesthetic concerns of a high-level NBA playoff game without the crowd are ultimately secondary to the health and safety factors that will play into the decision that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and the players' union must make in the coming weeks. Fan-free basketball is better than no basketball at all, as strange as it's going to be. And it's going to be strange.

"What the fans bring to the table is the connection with the city," Smith says. "You feel connected with the environment. It gives you an extra boost of adrenaline. But LeBron's still going to be LeBron, and you're going to see that. I don't care if you've got 10 people in the stands or a million people in the stands. He's still going to be worth watching from a television standpoint because of his greatness."

Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.