Outside the Orlando Magic’s hotel on the Walt Disney World campus, a group of resort employees formed a socially distanced line stretching from the lobby door to the team’s bus Wednesday afternoon.
As players passed en route to their tipoff against the Clippers, the workers raised their voices behind their masks, cheering “Let’s go Magic!” in unison.
Fans crowding the entrance of a team hotel is standard NBA practice. But on the most unprecedented game day in league history, everything that followed Wednesday was anything but.
To host the first four scrimmages of the NBA’s restart, the first competitive games played since the novel coronavirus pandemic suspended the league’s season March 11, the NBA turned the arenas on the Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., into de facto sound stages filled with the hallmarks of the new NBA reality: LED screens shielding empty seats, facemasks and disinfecting supplies.
About 200 spectators, including game staff to journalists, watched as Clippers guard Lou Williams scored 22 points and Paul George made four three-pointers en route to 18 points during a 99-90 Clippers victory against the Magic that was part scrimmage, part dry run for the league’s seeding games that begin July 30.
“Once you get in between the lines, you know, you can make a case that's probably as comfortable as the players will ever be, or as normal as everything will ever be because once they get between the lines, it's a basketball game,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I think you could see that. You could see the rust and all that. For them, they were back in their natural habitat.”
When Williams dribbled into the lane late in the fourth quarter, his layup was met with a bright graphics display filling up the video boards that ringed the court. But the only cheers he heard were from teammates and coaches sitting in three rows of assigned seats spaced several feet apart. A trolley behind each seat held players’ individual refreshments and towels. A bottle of Clorox wipes sat at the feet of Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue. A few feet away, the arena’s scorer’s table was encased in plexiglass.
When someone on the Clippers’ bench yelled “and one,” searching for a foul that was not called, it was the only voice heard in the arena.
“I thought it was cool when somebody scored, they had their own graphic on the screen,” Williams said. “I heard the defensive chants. But when I actually was on the floor, I didn't hear it. I didn't see it. I didn't feel it. I was locked into the game.
“So I don't know who that experience is for because there's no fans in the arena but it definitely wasn't for us.”
There was no national anthem and instead of halftime entertainment, two silver-haired men wearing matching blue shirts and pants pushed mops across the court.
The Magic were 20 miles from their home arena, hence the send-off cheers from the Disney workers, yet this was no home game. To replicate even a shred of homecourt advantage for the Clippers, the designated home team, chants of “defense” played over the arena sound system whenever Orlando went on offense. The video boards flashed the same “L.A. Our Way” branding that normally decorates Staples Center. “California Love” played after the Clippers’ victory.
“It was weird,” Orlando guard Michael Carter-Williams said. “You expect people to cheer or something when you’re doing something well. But the gym was dead silent at certain points. It’s going to take some getting used to.”
The experience was by no means normal for the Clippers, either. They played without starting center Ivica Zubac and reserve guard Landry Shamet, neither of whom have been seen in Orlando. Starting guard Patrick Beverley and reserve center Montrezl Harrell have each departed the NBA’s bubble since Friday to tend to emergency family matters, and Williams began his postgame interview acknowledging both.
Even without four of their most important players, Rivers received 19 minutes apiece from stars George and Kawhi Leonard, who scored nine points, and starting forward Marcus Morris played just one day after taking part in what was believed to be his first practice. There was also a promising debut from veteran center Joakim Noah in his first game since injuring an Achilles’ tendon last summer.
Noah had five rebounds, four points and three assists in the first game of his 13th NBA season. But the atmosphere transported the 35-year-old back to the empty AAU gyms of his youth.
“There's no crowd energy, so the energy's gonna have to come from the players,” Noah said. “A lot of teams say that slogan, 'We all we got.’ But, in this environment, it's gonna be key to really be there for each other.”
Staff writer Tania Ganguli contributed to this report.