2020 NBA Playoffs

Disney World Diary: Silent stadiums steal some playoff magic

Playoffs are dazzling once again, but lack the energy of home crowds

ORLANDO, Fla. — Last season at Staples Center, during halftime at a Los Angeles Lakers game, we reporters were sitting at press row, just minding our business, when he left his courtside seat and felt the need to invade our space.

Nobody invited Denzel Washington — well, actually, he didn’t really need one. We were thrilled when one of the great actors of our time chose to spend 15 minutes with us media people, who as you know are not particularly loved by anyone.

Washington came to chat, about basketball of course, and he couldn’t have been more down to Earth, gracious and well-versed about the game. He’s been a fixture at Lakers games for decades, and his two seats (one for Paulette, his wife) is just a bounce pass from press row. That means occasionally we get the Denzel nod every now and then. This time, we got an audience, and he seemed just as happy to see us as we were to see him.

I thought of this interaction today because I miss the fans. These games at Disney are high-quality and amazing to watch. How can you not be moved by Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic, among others?

When Ja Morant of the now-departed Memphis Grizzlies took a lob pass and elevated into the clouds for a dunk in the Play-In game with Portland, normally that would cause an eruption at the FedexForum in Memphis — and even a gasp at a road game. Here? Crickets, except for the Memphis bench.

The fans make the playoff atmosphere. Not only do they energize the players, their enthusiasm and presence also reaches to us reporters. Our creativity and motivation to write our stories comes from what we see and hear and, mainly, what we feel. Again, taking nothing away from what these players are doing right now — truly entertaining performances and finishes — but the absence of fans, especially after a big moment, is noticeable.

Sure, it’s great to speak with the rich and famous. In addition to Washington, I’ve been lucky enough to have basketball relationships with Spike Lee, Chris Rock and a few others over the years.

But mostly it’s the real fans, the ones who bleed their team colors and devote a large portion of their disposable income for tickets, who resonate mainly with me. I’ve come to know dozens, or at least see them often, in their regular seats, which aren’t as good as Denzel’s. As Pat Beverley is fond of saying, we’re here for the people in the back.

I’ve never been more moved by fans than during the days immediately following Kobe Bryant’s death. Their pain was heartfelt. It was almost as if a family member died. They arrived by the thousands outside Staples Center to grieve. Those are devoted, passionate people who care about their sport and the players who grab their attention.

The coronavirus pandemic won’t last forever. It won’t deny the fans the chance to reconnect with basketball, and it won’t deprive the players and media the chance to reconnect with the people who pay the salaries, read the stories and truly make this sport work.

Maybe next season we’ll have normalcy. I know the NBA is placing a high priority on having games with fans, with safety protocols of course, if that’s possible.

Watching Lillard swish buckets from 30 feet here at Disney is fun and sensational. Meanwhile, clear across the country, the Moda Center in Portland is so dark, empty and quiet you can hear a 3-pointer drop.

I feel you, Blazers fans. Hopefully soon, I’ll see you, too. And when we connect, the next cup of coffee’s on me.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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