ORLANDO — For those with a heavy emotional investment in the basketball world, what just happened inside a makeshift NBA arena was a sight for starving eyes, and also an odd one for all other human senses.
You couldn’t hear the boom of approval when Paul George slithered into the lane and performed a forceful dunk because all applause was confined to the Clippers’ bench.
You couldn’t smell the arresting aroma of comfort food and upscale cuisine because there was nothing being grilled on the mezzanine, nor was there a mezzanine, period.
And you couldn’t see a sea of fans crammed together in the stands or sitting crossed-legged at courtside while sipping wine because, well, you should know by now.
This dry run of basketball disguised as a scrimmage between the Clippers and Magic on Wednesday was officially the first organized NBA game since March 11, but the world changed that day and so has the presentation of basketball.
Based on what everyone saw when the NBA kinda-sorta reopened for business — a professional basketball game being held without fans — this will take some getting used to, you suppose?
“It was really quiet, so you’ve got to bring your own energy,” said Magic forward Aaron Gordon. “You can hear everything that’s being said on the floor.”
The Arena at the Wide World Of Sports Complex was tricked out for the Clippers-Magic sneak peek and same goes for the two other venues that’ll host the refurbished season when the games resume next Thursday. Since there are no fans, everything is designed and made for TV, which creates an artificial atmosphere. What other choice is there?
You might get the urge to plug in a Playstation to feel the full effect. Video dominates the lower level of the arena, where hi-def panels are stretched to surround three-fourths of the floor. It was a tech bubble, with boldly lit graphics giving the appearance of a NBA2K game just beyond the court. Speaking of the court, Black Lives Matter is tattooed in bold print and loudly enough to be seen and heard, in case there’s someone out there who is unaware what the league and its players are promoting and protesting. Other than that and the league logo, the court is bare and the lane is unpainted.
Here were the arresting images and sounds from the first-game tuneup, won by the Clippers, 99-90, that will follow the NBA as it untangles and finishes this interrupted season with 22 teams in one spot:
No cheerleaders, mascots, goofy halftime acts, fan shooting contests, ushers or yellow-jacketed security around to yank anyone who’s sitting in the wrong seat.
The seats on the team benches are socially-distanced and layered in three rows and tucked into the corner, away from the assistant coaches (also spaced). Each seat on the bench has its own water-bottle holder; players must use their own for the entire game. During timeouts, five folding chairs are hustled onto the floor for the players, six if the coach wants to sit as he scribbles on his eraserboard. Everyone else must stand.
The scorer’s table will be surrounded by plexiglass as protection and as an added bonus, also a shield against a wayward player lunging for a loose ball.
The ballboys and ballgirls, all locally sourced, must wear rubber gloves and sit in chairs off the court and behind the basket while socially distanced from each other.
Nobody is on the floor except the referees, players and head coaches. Assistant coaches must stay seated. There are no photographers under the basket and the three court-side TV cameras are controlled remotely.
The referees are mic’d so the folks behind the plexiglass can hear them when there’s an infraction.
The home team, in this case the Clippers, got the home graphics on the video boards, and when one of their own scored a basket, he heard a little extra volume from the PA announcer. Interesting scene: The PA actually said, “Please welcome your Clippers” and … no applause. There’s a joke there that Laker fans are telling each other, but their time is coming, too.
Interesting scene, No. 2: Joakim Noah waved a hand in the air after being announced as a Clippers’ starter … as though someone was supposed to notice.
Interesting scene, No. 3: The PA said, “Please welcome the visiting team, the Orlando Magic.”
The upper deck is blacked out with tarp, the TV announcing crew must sit several rows from the court and are spaced apart, and additional media are limited to a handful of seats tucked in a corner.
Yes, as the adopted NBA slogan says, it’s a whole new game, indeed. At least until the ball goes up and instinct takes over.
It’s the most vocal I’ve been forced to be during a game.
Clippers’ Lou Williams
Clippers coach Doc Rivers: “Once the game starts, it’s all basketball. Early on I thought all the players sat in their seats, and as the game went on, everyone was up together. I thought that was great overall, our spirit was great during the game. You can hear your teammates cheer for you, and so I thought that was OK.”
Magic coach Steve Clifford: “I thought it was much more comfortable than I thought it would be. I think the teams that can adapt to playing in a unique, kind of different environment without all of the fans, whoever can get the right mindset so they can just concentrate on playing will have a big advantage.”
The whole experience in Orlando is one big adjustment for everyone involved. Until Wednesday, that process was confined to living in a hotel and getting tested for the virus and trying to reassemble after four months off. But with the scrimmages underway and the seeding games and then playoff games soon to follow, that adjustment will heighten. Each team will play three scrimmages to prepare for the seeding games next.
More than anything, the players must conform to a more sedate atmosphere which is artificially and occasionally enhanced with piped-in pump-up music and chants. Otherwise, it’s squeaky sneakers and plenty of yelling.
“It’s the most vocal I’ve been forced to be during a game,” said Clippers guard Lou Williams. “Usually when fans are yelling and screaming support, that’s an opportunity for me to relax. I wasn’t allowed to do that.”
After overhearing that, his raspy-voiced coach chimed in:
“Now you know how I feel,” said Rivers, “and why I talk like this.”
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