A New Ball Game: Raps Adjust To 2020 Atmosphere

by Chris O'Leary

Over a roughly 4:30 stretch in the first quarter of their game on Saturday night, the Charlotte Hornets took it to the Toronto Raptors. 

It started with a pair of Cody Zeller free throws and a suddenly red hot Hornets team that made its next five shots from the field as the score started to get out of hand. There were threes from Terry Rozier and Zeller that led to a Raptors timeout. There was a two-handed dunk from former Raptor Bismack Biyombo and when Miles Bridges connected from 19-feet out the score was 25-6 for the home team. Inside the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, we heard the celebration of the Hornets and nothing else. 

There’s been a strange juxtaposition of watching sports over the last nine months. On one hand, there’s the joy generated by their return and the shred of normalcy that it provides in lives that are in so many other ways shutdown. The NBA’s empty or mostly-to-be-empty arenas join the ballparks of MLB, the stadiums of the NFL and soccer leagues around the world. The echo of player chatter and that ever present void around them are a grim reminder that a full normal isn’t a part of the equation yet. 

A lifetime of watching or being at NBA games has tied crowd reaction to big plays. In Charlotte, Zeller’s timeout-causing three would have had fans cheering him on as he spotted up for the shot and had them on their feet after the make. LaMelo Ball’s fast break lob to Jalen McDaniels on Monday night would have had the crowd roaring, with the third-overall pick having a buzz around him every time he stepped onto the court. 

With two preseason games against the Hornets in the books, it’s clear that watching the Raptors or any NBA teams this season will take some getting used to. A few teams -- including the Raptors, the team announced on Tuesday -- will allow fans in their stadiums this season, but the environment will be drastically different. It’s something that players will have to get used to, as well. 

“It was different than the bubble, because in the bubble everything around it was black,” Raptors forward OG Anunoby said between the games in Charlotte. At Disney World in the bubble, the NBA put LED screens in the lower bowl to make for a tighter, more intimate and interactive experience. That may be harder for the league’s 30 teams to duplicate on their own. 

“But we’re going to get used to it,” Anunoby said. “We have no choice.” 

The Hornets piped in some artificial crowd noise for their first two preseason games, which was more noticeable in the Monday night game. Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins laughed during their call of the game for Sportsnet when audio played of the non-existent crowd in Charlotte taunting a couple of airballs. 

“It's different,” Raptors guard Matt Thomas said. 

“It’s definitely different playing without fans and different than the bubble as well. It’s something that we're gonna have to get used to, though. Those are the times we're in and the same time, it's different and weird. 

“We all wish we could be playing in front of fans and we wish we could be at home playing in front of our own fans but we're also just thankful that we're able to continue to play and do what we love every single day.” 

It’ll be an ongoing adjustment and it may feel doubly that way for the Raptors, who will test out their temporary home court at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay on Friday when the Heat come to close out the preseason. Playing in front of a minimal crowd in a new city will feel different until the ball goes up. From there, background noise or lack thereof tends to become a secondary thought. 

“I didn't didn't really notice that much,” Nick Nurse said of the atmosphere in Charlotte. 

“I thought the energy was high (from the players). Both teams, both benches were up and had great energy. It didn't seem as big and empty as it probably looked. It didn't feel that way, being in it.” 

“The three-point line is still the same distance. The basket’s still 10-feet and the balls the same size,” Thomas said. “As a shooter, I don't really think about anything else.” 

Yuta Watanabe, who played 21 minutes off the bench in the Raptors’ pair of wins, said it was a strange but easy adjustment. 

“It’s going to be like this until things get well,” he said, “but I think we’ll get used to it.” 

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