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Inside the NBA bubble: The new arena experience is a strange one

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New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz play in an arena without fans during the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)


ORLANDO, Fla. — After going through a security checkpoint in a rental car and pulling into the parking lot at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World, I was gifted with the best parking spot I’ve ever had at a sporting event.

Of course, there weren’t going to be many other cars because there wouldn’t be any fans, and most of the media took a shuttle over to the complex from a hotel just a couple miles away.

Walking from the parking lot and into the complex, which features the Arena, the Visa Athletic Center and the HP Field House, where the Jazz played their first game on Thursday, it felt like a college campus during summer break.

There was hardly anybody around, only a few people here and there, security guards at the entrances of the many large buildings, with banners on the light poles, one for each of the 22 teams in the NBA bubble, and a few that read “Black Lives Matter.”

Green arrows and signage marked where “Group 1” media was allowed. That’s the group that lives on the NBA campus and can interact, socially distanced of course, with the players, coaches and staff.

Yellow arrows marked the “Group 2” path, where I was allowed to walk. A negative COVID-19 test gave me clearance to enter the bubble and the arenas. Once I arrived near the HP Field House, a QR code on the back of my credential was scanned, and I was given a small two-inch rectangular gadget on a lanyard, which also had a QR code and was paired with me.

I wasn’t given a complete explanation for what this gadget does, it blinks and flashes and theoretically is supposed to notify me if I’m too close to another person who is also wearing one, but in reality it blinks and flashes with incredible randomness no matter how close or far away from someone I am.

The media setup for the games was familiar and it felt just like any other game day on a Jazz road trip. The first order of business: Find the media workroom, get the WiFi passwords, then go into the arena and locate my seat for the game. Once I was inside the arena looking at the court, that’s when it got weird.

You can hardly even see that there are spectator seats in the building because the NBA has blocked them from view with huge video boards. A robotic camera in front of the Group 1 media on the sideline opposite the player benches slides along a rail, a mind of its own. The benches and scorers table are the entirety of seating on one side of the court, with plexiglass separating the two groups like a penalty box for NBA staffers.

There was still music being pumped in while players warmed up, which seemed normal, but once the game started, things got a little more strange. The video boards showed fans’ faces, part of the NBA’s effort to give the fans an integrated experience, but the sound being pumped into the building of cheers and jeers was so artificial that it felt like an unnecessary joke.

Then, when the first player went to the free-throw line and the already-quiet arena quieted a little more, I was shocked that from the other side of the court I heard the ball bounce against the hardwood louder than I thought possible.

With the coaches wearing polo shirts, the lack of fanfare at the starters being announced, and the amount of talking audible from the court, it almost felt like a summer league game, except this game mattered and it was between two teams full of legitimate NBA players rather than a smattering of players who will be lucky to be on a G League team.

Seconds before the tipoff between the Jazz and Pelicans, the in-arena announcer loudly proclaimed, “Your attention please. We’re baaaaack!”

Behind my mask, my face screwed up and an eyebrow raised because we aren’t back. There’s basketball again, but this is completely different, and there are thousands of people missing from that “we.”