SALT LAKE CITY — A hot topic over the last few weeks has been what NBA games will look, sound and feel like with no fans in the building. There’s definitely merit in having that discussion, and we’ll get to that, but we do need to clear something up first.
The NBA bubble arenas in Orlando, Florida, won’t exactly be empty. NBA players will be able to attend games they aren’t playing in. They aren’t the same type of rabid, one-team-only fans that we’re used to seeing in a crowd, but they love basketball.
Think about all the times during the course of a regular-season NBA game or playoff game when the camera cuts to a shot of the bench reacting because of a crazy dunk or crossover. Think about the massive amount of NBA players that attend All-Star events and games and are seen cheering and laughing on the sidelines.
NBA players watch basketball all the time. They watch on TV, they review film, they watch games they’re interested in via NBA LeaguePass. Even during the playoffs, it’s not uncommon to see players from noncompeting teams show up in person to watch the action.
This time, the situation is a little unique because players won’t have to watch the games on TV. They’ll be right there, with every game played available to them.
“I think it’s great that we’ll be able to do that,” Jazz center Rudy Gobert said Monday. “We’re all fans of the game of basketball. I think I’m definitely going to go watch some games.”
Then there’s a second level because the players aren’t just fans of the game, they’re competitors. In addition to having some entertainment on a day off or to break up the monotony of life in the bubble, the players will be able to scout the other teams.
“When we’re on the road I watch a lot of games on LeaguePass and on TV, so being able to watch them live is even better,” Gobert said. “Especially when it’s teams we might face in the playoffs, or teams that we want to learn watching. It’s a big plus.”
It’s not just the players, the coaches are all thinking about it too. Jazz coach Quin Snyder wasn’t willing to say how many or which games he might be attending, but he couldn’t deny there was some advantage to having all the games played in the same place.
“There’s not only some entertainment value,” he said. “For us coaches there’s certainly a scouting opportunity.”
There’s still so many things that remain to be seen about the game experience in the NBA bubble. The NBA will be implementing ways for fans to interact with the game virtually, with video boards surrounding the court to show fans watching from home. Details of how the operation will work have not been released by the NBA, but Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was able to tour The Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the largest of the three playing venues in the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World and was very impressed.
“We saw the digital boards in their full operation mode,” he said. “There’s going to be pictures of actual fans on the digital boards so it will look in effect like there are people in the arena ... this is like next level, unbelievable stuff.”
There’s no question, especially during the playoffs, that the absence of fans will make for a different environment with coaches and players all agreeing that they’ll miss the opportunities to feed off the crowd energy. Despite that missing component, most seem confident the competition level won’t be impacted.
Players are familiar with playing when there aren’t people around. They practice every day without fans in the building and play pick-up throughout the year, especially in the offseason.
“Without a crowd, certainly it’s going to be a little different,” Snyder said. “But, at the same time, players in our league love to play and love to compete. It’s not like there won’t be stuff on the line that motivates you.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of the game without fans in the building will be the increase in what players, coaches, referees and fans at home will be able to hear that they weren’t able to before.
“You might see an uptick in more technical fouls, because they can hear what players are saying,” Oklahoma City center Steven Adams said with a laugh. “Because we like to talk behind (the officials’) backs, but they can actually hear us now. There’s going to be a lot more Ts.”
Assistant coaches barking at officials, players talking trash to one another, players saying things with their backs’ turned away from officials, players on the same team arguing with one another, defenses calling out picks, sets and formations being called out. These are all things that are difficult or impossible to hear during a normal NBA game, but will almost certainly get noticed when there aren’t an extra 20,000 people in the building.
Instead, there will be NBA players sitting on the sidelines. Reacting, talking trash, enjoying the game from up close in a way that they’ve never been able to before. To borrow a phrase from Disney’s Aladdin and Jasmine, the NBA bubble will be “a whole new world.”