Earlier this week, New York City joined several cities in reopening indoor sports arenas to a limited number of fans. NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal told CBS News in an interview that he hopes it's a "sign we might be turning a corner" in the fight against the pandemic.
After most of the NBA started out the season, local laws now permit many teams to have fans to cheer them on — or boo them — in person. Since Tuesday, the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have had a 10% capacity limit for fans to watch them play at their respective home arenas, after playing in the stands.
O'Neal, who played nearly 20 seasons in the league, knows first hand what having fans means to players.
"Fans definitely have an impact on the game," O'Neal said. "When you're down by 10 and have the crowd cheering, they help a lot."
Amid a pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans, the gradual return of fans to indoor venues is a welcome sign for O'Neal.
"I'm not in the league now so I don't know what it's really like playing for no fans, but when I was playing, I would always look out into the stands for kids and their parents and the people who paid a lot of money to see our team play — it's definitely a step in the right direction and a sign we might be turning a corner," he added.
The NBA was praised for creating a so-called "bubble" in Orlando, Florida, last year to minimize the spread of the virus. But the league did not institute the bubble this year, and dozens of this season's games were postponed due to COVID-19 safety and health protocols.
The "NBA on TNT" co-host, who's starring in a new ad campaign for The General car insurance, believes the league is "doing a great job of being cautious and following the necessary protocols."
"The bubble worked well but it was hard on the workers, players, coaches and their families," O'Neal said, acknowledging the mental health difficulties and the time spent away from families.
The NBA All-Star Game is set for March 7, but the decision to hold the game during the pandemic has been criticized by some of the league's top players, including Los Angeles Lakers star. The game will be played at State Farm Arena in Atlanta and allow a limited number of guests.
"For me, the All-Star Game was always about the fans and seeing the other retired players," he said. "It'll be different but hopefully after this year, things will start to get back to normal."