It’s been years since I last went to FedExForum to cover a Memphis Grizzlies game. OK, technically it’s only been about nine months, but y’know … COVID. Sure feels like years.
Anyway, for the March 12 print edition of The New Tri-State Defender, I wrote a column that was obsolete before it was even printed. This was pre-lockdown, when Texas was reporting a whopping 13 confirmed cases(!), literally just one day before Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test shut down the league. At the time, I wrote the following:
As the game was getting underway, I was debating with a colleague about whether media would still be able to attend games even if fans weren’t. “I mean, you still gotta cover the game, right?” he said. “Shoot photos, postgame interviews, right? They’d still need to grant media access to watch the games.”
I thought about it for a second.
“If there’s a game being played and ain’t nobody in these stands,” I replied. “That would be the very definition of news. We’d have to cover that, and they’d have to know that we’d have to cover that. I think that means access.”
Thus I find myself back at FedExForum for the first time in months, with basketball being played. If you exclude the team staffers and their families scattered across the lower bowl, there ain’t nobody in these stands. It is as weird as you might expect.
No doubt this is a dress rehearsal, not just for the players, but for arena staff, who are adjusting to new normals themselves. Of course, masks must be worn at all times when you’re not eating. Plenty of social distancing, which is most noticeable in how few and far between courtside seats are now. Don’t bother bringing cash to the concession stand; they’re working to make all those transactions cashless.
But that familiar hum, that fan buzz that generates energy in the arena? No buzz, mostly crickets. And the silence isn’t even deafening … it’s just eerily quiet.
Grizzlies players are probably at least partially used to this. They played eight seeding games in the Orlando bubble before losing the play-in game to the Portland Trailblazers, who were ultimately dismissed by the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Without fans, those games were outright TV productions, and they looked great on TV. This preseason game against the Hawks probably looks great on TV. But there will be some in-arena embellishments. About halfway through the third quarter, for instance, I did begin to hear some of that “buzz” — only it was prerecorded fan noise, pumped through speakers.
It helps – until you hear “thunder sticks” clapping together to distract a Hawks free-throw shooter, but you don’t see any fans behind the basket. Whenever fans are allowed back in, it will ad energy back to the arena, however many fans there are.
COVID has given us a lot of ironies. As the franchise celebrates its 20th year in Memphis, try this one on: In a normal season, this up-and-coming squad and its young superstar would threaten to pack the arena most nights. Instead, they will almost certainly play in front of fewer fans than many of the woeful 20-win Grizz squads that preceded them.
But the great news is that early signs are that the Grizzlies so far seem to be building on their momentum from last season and the Orlando bubble. And that’s without Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow, who missed a lot of time in the bubble and won’t start this season with injuries. Check out my Three Point Play: