The return of NBA basketball has given so many people’s lives a much-needed sense of normalcy during a time when almost everything has been turned upside down. For the players in the NBA, though, things have only gotten stranger since the season restarted.
Last month, 22 teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, left their respective cities for an opportunity to compete for a championship at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. While the bubble environment the NBA has succeeded in its goal of keeping players safe, it’s been less successful in making players feel comfortable in their new surroundings — particularly on the court.
The NBA and its partners created a unique viewing experience for the fans at home, which includes virtual fans on the sidelines. Among the fans that were virtually in attendance at the Lakers’ game against the Indiana Pacers on Saturday was one of Frank Vogel’s daughters.
“At the beginning of the game, I tried to wave and she didn’t wave back,” Vogel said after practice on Sunday. “I didn’t know if she could see me or not.”
But aside from the occasional familiar face on the screen, the virtual fan experience hasn’t done much to affect the Lakers during games, positively or negatively. As far as they’re concerned, they’re playing games without fans.
“It’s just a very weird dynamic,” LeBron James said after the game on Saturday. “It’s a very weird dynamic. I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time. For me personally, it’s been a very long time since no one was watching me play the game. So it’s just trying to find that rhythm and just blocking it.
“You know, this is great, you have to love basketball — you have to really love basketball to be here. Because there’s no extra motivation you know that you get or the excitement from the crowd and things of that nature. You have to really like love the game and love the work and be able to lock in on your craft. It’s something that I actually love. It’s pretty cool.”
There are players who benefit from that extra motivation and excitement from the crowd, though, and Alex Caruso has discovered that he’s one of them, despite the fact that his path to the NBA was through the G League, where games are often played in front of only a handful of fans.
“I can’t really speak on the rest of the team, but for me, I think the first couple of games, it was almost hard for me to focus, which was almost the opposite of what people would expect in a bubble with no crowd and no extra curricular stuff going on,” Caruso said. “I think I’m finding out that I have an easier time focusing and locking in when there is that that show, that that audience. And without that, I’m having to look more intrinsically and find something to help myself lock in.”
That mental block is something that James and Caruso have said they’re slowly working through. In fact, James attributed his big night against the Pacers to him feeling more comfortable playing in an empty gym. But there are certain things that the Lakers can’t control, like the environment itself.
“It is a little different,” Anthony Davis said. “I wouldn’t say so much the fans, but the shooting background is definitely different. The depth perception is definitely different. We were just talking about it earlier, the lights, especially catching it on the wing and looking at the basket, they kind of brighten up the court a little bit.”
Davis made it clear he didn’t want to use that as an excuse for his forgettable night against the Pacers, but there’s no denying that there has been an adjustment period for everyone on the team.
“The backdrop here is a lot different from from playing in a high school gym or in a college arena where you kind of like play in the summertime or whatever the case may be,” James said. “It’s very dark — extremely dark. And it’s like, literally you can hear a feather hit the ground.”
There’s no telling when the Lakers will play a game at Staples Center again, or whether there will be fans in the stands when they do, but James is already looking forward to that moment.
“I definitely miss our fans,” James said. “I’m definitely missing being at the Staples Center with our fans, being on the road, going against fans that boo me, going to other games and like that, going to watch my son play and seeing the fans there. Fans are missed.
“I hope that someday the pandemic and COVID can get under wraps and we can take all the precautions that’s needed, and we can get it figured out in America where we can get our fans back into arenas, and stadiums, and gyms, and things of that nature because I think it’s just huge for sports.”