The National Basketball Association resumed its regular season with a TNT Thursday Night Doubleheader on July 30. The opening game featured the Utah Jazz, the very team that sparked the NBA’s initial need to shut down, and the New Orleans Pelicans, who started their journey to claw their way into the playoffs with Zion Wiliamson.
The second game featured the Western Conference’s two best teams: the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. As one of the most sought after matchups in the league, it felt good for fans to be able to see LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard back on the court for the first time since March.
The NBA has resumed regular season play in a “bubble,” with 22 teams, at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. This means of course, playing in a neutral site, with no fans in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These games could have felt empty, with players competing on what would look like just a gymnasium basketball court. But the NBA did a decent job of bringing the game to life and making fans feel at home.
The most tangible difference from your typical NBA game is the lack of fans. This is masked with artificial crowd noise. This actually works better than in MLB an Major League Soccer: where the empty stands are apparent throughout. Due to the camera angle utilized, as well as the multi-tiered benches that promote social distance, the illusion is strengthened.
Finally, there are fans. Instead of using cardboard cutouts, like MLB, the NBA is using dynamic videos of fans where they would be sitting in the stands. You won’t spend too much time looking at them: but out of the corner of your eye, they look much better than the almost-creepy cardboard cuts MLB has implemented.
The artificial crowd noise certainly doesn’t recreate the real experience 100%, but it’s a welcome addition that makes viewers feel just a little more comfortable. Still, in the closing minutes of a close game, seeing the crowds raw reactions will be missed.
The neutral courts feature the logos of the home team, and even their sponsors. In the opening game of the evening, the designated home team was the New Orleans Pelicans, and Smoothie King, the namesake of their arena, had their signage on the court.
Speaking of advertisements, you’ll see a lot of them in the NBA’s return to action. The league is losing boat loads of revenue with the inability to host fans, so sponsorships are a sensible way to earn some of that money back. The NBA has been littered with corporate sponsorships for years, and player jerseys even contain logos of partnered companies. But even slightly more than usual, there were tons of brands represented on and around the court.
Players from non-participating teams watched the game from a far, a unique sight for fans.
NBA Uses Its Platform to Promote Social Justice
Prior to the first regular season NBA game in over four months, players and coaches from both the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans, as well as the referees, knelt during the National Anthem in a call to end social injustice in the United States of America.
In the past, individual NBA players had knelt, but teams opted mainly for linking arms in a show of unity in 2016, after Colin Kaepernick started the trend in the NFL. In Major League Baseball this season, the New York Yankees and Washington National all took a knee prior to the playing of the National Anthem.
For both teams to kneel during the anthem, a shift in narrative since 2016 has been realized. More people are beginning to understand kneeling during the country’s National Anthem isn’t disrespectful to the military or the flag. Rather, it is an active fulfillment of the American promise: to strive for equality between all men and women.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, along with their staffs and the referees, did the same for their 9:00 PM ET game on TNT.
During the broadcast, it would be impossible to ignore the calls for social and racial equality. “Black Lives Matter” is painted front and center across the middle of the court. Prior to the game, an inspiring video featuring players from across the league played, with players calling for action and unity.
Players were allowed to display a pre-screened phrase on the back of their jersey in lieu of their last name. Zion Williamson opted to show “Peace” over his #1 Pelicans jersey. Other players went with messages such as “Equality,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Education Reform.”
Playing in a Bubble During COVID-19
So far in July, I’ve been watching the MLS is Back Tournament and a handful of Philadelphia Philllies and New York Mets in MLB’s delayed start to their 2020 season. In both sports, coaches and staff are usually required to wear masks at all times.
Soccer is a light contact sport, so player-to-player transmission via close proximity is definitely possible. But MLS, like the NBA, is playing within an Orlando bubble, so new cases among players should be rare to non-existent (assuming players follow rules and guidelines on where they can and can’t go. Aka don’t be Lou Williams.)
In MLB, with contact possible but generally far less rigorous than in soccer or basketball, there is a wildcard factor: travel. MLB is playing in crows-less home stadiums, meaning teams have to travel across the country as they would normally. This has already become an apparent issue with an outbreak within the Miami Marlins organization, one that would impact the schedules of the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, and now with Phillies staff testing positive, the Toronto Blue Jays. If more outbreaks arise, MLB may not be able to sustain an orderly 60-game schedule.
The NBA features the sport with the most consistent skin-to-skin contact. Of course, players must routinely pass COVID-19 tests in order to remain on the court. Within the safety of the bubble, the plan should work. Teams played a set of three scrimmages prior to the league’s resumption, with no spread of virus reported in the aftermath.
One difference from other leagues that have began play was the absence of masks from coaches on the sideline. Some did wear a mask, or put one in when in close proximity to the opposing team, but ideally, coaches should be relatively safe within the bubbles guidelines. Still, with as many as 60 to 70 people in the room between players, coaches, team staff, referees, and media, wearing a mask on the sidelines may still be prudent.
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