Should the NBA Play Games Without Fans?

by Daniel Azimi

Why the NBA without fans is not true basketball

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Rudy Gobert, the starting center for the Utah Jazz, was the “patient zero” of the NBA, leading the season’s closure.

Since the merger of the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League in 1949, no NBA game has been played without fans. Through the league’s declining popularity in the late 1970s, fans still attended professional basketball games. As a result, fans have become much more than just an audience. Over time, they have developed into a vital support system and even a part of their respective NBA teams. On March 11, 2020, the league announced that the Golden State Warriors were to play the Brooklyn Nets without any fans in attendance due to the coronavirus outbreak. This was the first time in the NBA’s history that an order was issued for a game to be played without any fans in the stadium due to public health concerns. Even though this order was rendered useless due to the league’s decision to suspend the season a few hours later, it still had a resounding impact on basketball players and fans around the world.

Playing games without fans has its obvious advantages. It helps halt the spread of the coronavirus while still allowing professional basketball players to continue with their jobs and play basketball. However, playing NBA games behind closed doors is unnatural. The energy and excitement of a game are largely determined by the fans in the stands. As a basketball player, I can say with confidence that playing a game with fans is a completely different experience than playing without them. Players feed off the energy of not only their teammates but also the crowd. A crowd also often determines the nature of a basketball game. As Hakeem Olajuwon, a hall of fame center writes in his book, Living the Dream, “You can actually see from the moment you walk on the court how the game is going to be. If the crowd is intense it’s going to be a hard night.” In a professional setting, the spirit of a crowd is amplified tenfold. Additionally, without loud fans in the stands, the stadium would be eerily silent. Basketball is a form of entertainment, and this aspect would feel almost non-existent without fans in the bleachers. This unnatural feeling would be especially magnified during the playoffs, a time when average viewership and attendance usually increases. Although playing NBA games behind closed doors could have its benefits, the fact remains that it would be unnatural and unusual.

Simply put, NBA fans are part of the organization. They determine the culture and energy of a team, and without them, no team would be complete. Eliminating their attendance from games would completely change the nature of the NBA, a largely negative change. As a result, it makes more sense to all together suspend the season, rather than play an abnormal game of basketball. LeBron James sums it up well; when he was asked about playing games behind closed doors, he responded, “I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for. I play for my teammates, and I play for the fans. That’s what it’s all about. So if I show up to an arena and there ain’t no fans in there, I ain’t playing”.