National anthem kneeling, ‘virtual fan’ weirdness, and other scenes from inside the NBA’s Orlando restart

(Ashley Landis | AP) Members of the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz kneel together around the Black Lives Matter logo on the court during the national anthem before the start of an NBA basketball game Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. • There were a few comforting similarities to covering a conventional NBA game on Thursday: going through a media-specific entrance and passing through a metal detector, whiling away some of the pre-tipoff minutes in a food-stocked workroom, and of course a steady stream of hip-hop music blaring as players got in their pregame warmups.

That was about it.

Nearly everything else simply felt incredibly foreign and weird.

For starters, driving into the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex required passing through a quick security checkpoint. A short time later, after parking in a media/employees lot and walking toward the HP Field House, yet another security checkpoint came up, this time requiring a scan of the barcode on the back of my credential and syncing it up with a “Kinexon SafeZone” device. It did, indeed, beep anytime I came within 6 feet of someone else wearing one. It also beeped when I was walking alone, no one nearby. And it beeped when I was doing nothing at all.

As for inside the arena, obviously you notice a setup that theoretically could resemble an NBA Summer League game in scope, but with a majority of the seats blocked off by various video screens. The relatively low-hanging roof is covered in scaffolding housing a ton of lights and speakers, though there is no central Jumbotron.

As the Jazz emerged from the locker room and onto the court at 6:19 p.m. EDT, the public address announcer demurely noted, “Please give a warm welcome to the visiting Utah Jazz,” then took it up a bunch of notches moments later “for yooooooour New … Orleans … Pelicans!” — a nod to convention, perhaps, if a weird one, considering not a soul in the building reacted to either exhortation, and there was no home-court advantage whatsoever to be found.

Most of the players — from both teams — emerged wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” on them to go through the layup lines.

As the clocks ticked down to zero, a video played (presumably anyway — it was not visible from the media vantage point), with audio from various players explaining the importance of them continuing to push the racial and social justice movements taking place across the country. “Things aren’t going to change until we make them change — and we will,” it concluded.

Then, as it was announced that the national anthem would feature a recorded performance from Jon Batiste, all of the players, coaches, and referees took a knee along the sideline. Jazz coach Quin Snyder and Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry were locked arm-in-arm. It was a powerful, poignant moment, with seemingly every media member shooting video to capture the historic moment — one that Snyder said pregame he was excited for.

“We support our players and are anxious to participate along with them,” Snyder said while clad in a Black Lives Matter hoodie. “It’s so important at this point for us to be unified, and to be able to peacefully protest many of the critical things that are going on in our country right now.”

As for everything else …

Well, seeing the scorer’s area completely shielded by plexiglass is jarring, as are the European soccer-style oversized chairs they have for the bench players, especially with them being socially distanced across three rows.

The video boards featuring the “virtual fans” were something of a distraction, as video of some fans ran at full-speed, while others lagged behind. The “crowd noise” also seemed fairly useless — so quiet that it did not obscure the chatter from those on the court (every “5 … 4 … 3” from the assistant coaches as the shot clock wound down was audible, as were the “Oooooohhhhh”s from the Jazz bench after Jordan Clarkson coaxed Jaxson Hayes into going one way, then promptly driving to the hoop in the area he vacated). It also seemed a bit artificial besides; Donovan Mitchell’s assessment that it resembles the crowd sounds from NBA2K was pretty spot on.

Honestly, with no Jumbotron available, it might have been useful to have those video boards devoted to showing replays instead (though admittedly that maybe opens Pandora’s box for players to complain about everything).

Plus, lots and lots (and lots) of black curtaining obscuring non-used areas, and lighting centered on the court, with the remaining environs relatively dark by comparison.

Still, in spite of all the differences, even with all the weirdness to acclimate to, I have to say — it was fun being there, in the flesh, watching an NBA basketball game happen.

Which made it just normal enough.