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The in-arena during a pandemic fan experience


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I was at the doctor’s office Thursday afternoon when I got the call. I’d sprained my finger a few days prior and was getting it checked out. Apparently Grizzlies players weren’t the only ones doomed for injury; Grizzlies writers had begun to catch the curse, too.

You’ll rarely hear me complain about the pandemic, because I am well-aware that I have it better than most people. I’ve been fortunate enough to not see anyone close to me suffer with COVID-19. I’ve had a roof over my head and food to sustain me.

Like anyone, though, I’ve struggled with this new way of life. I’ve changed in ways I can’t even understand yet; ways I won’t truly understand until this is all over and I’m thrown back into the world. We’ve all changed; we’ve had to.

So when I got that call in the doctor’s office parking lot Thursday morning, a wave of emotions flooded over me that I was not exactly prepared for.

My dad was on the other line. He said, “You and me are going to sit on the floor tonight for the Grizzlies vs. Cavs game. A Grizzlies representative offered us free tickets. It’s some kind of trial game, I guess.”

And to clear up a common misconception stemming from Twitter: My dad is a long-time season ticket holder. This, perhaps combined with the fact that the representative is aware of my Grizzlies work, is why she gave us the tickets. Probably more-so the former.

It dawned on me that it had been over a year since I had stepped into that arena; since nearly any fans had stepped into that arena. I felt a bubbling mix of joy and anxiety. It’s weird how something that used to be so normal is now a subject of wonder and intrigue.

I got all of the messages after the game: What was it like? Was it weird without many fans? How did it feel to be back?

And that’s why I’m writing this article. When the time comes to revisit FedExForum and attend a Grizzlies game, fans could pretend like they’re prepared to saunter back into the arena like nothing has changed but in reality, I think everyone feels this sinking sense of uncertainty and curiosity.

My experience went like this:

The instructions told my dad and me to pull up to the side of the Forum about thirty minutes before game time. We had previously scheduled COVID-19 rapid tests, which were to be performed and certified before we could even step foot into the arena.

It was the eeriest thing. We’re sitting in our car beside our local NBA arena that we’ve attended games at so many times before — watching fans eagerly pile into the doors sporting various shades of blue — but never like this. Never with tubes being stuck inside our noses and carpool lines of parked cars filled with jittery fans awaiting test results.

After about twenty minutes of nothing, we got our emails verifying that our tests were negative. There was only one entrance at the side where you walked in and did security like normal, only everyone was wearing masks and you kept your jacket on to ensure as little contact with the staff as possible.

There was a duct tape line leading us to an elevator. A staff member let us in and sent us to our floor, where there was more duct tape guiding the way to our seats.

At this point it started to hit me that I really was there, about to do the most normal thing I’d done in over a year in the least normal of circumstances.

What surprised me a lot, though, was how normal it did feel when we finally reached the court and were able to step onto the floor. The team stood before us, throwing up practice shots with a reassuring ease. Lines of chairs were splayed out beside the court, separated by several feet in twos or threes. It didn’t feel normal in a traditional sense; it felt normal like we were selected to come watch a scrimmage game or something.

There were maybe 60 fans there; the majority of bodies in the arena besides the players and coaches being staff or family members. In an arena that fills 18,000, 60 fans is certainly an adjustment.

A few things that stuck out during the game:

The fans present were not really cheering or applauding much. My guess is most felt weird making noise in a large place where their voices wouldn’t be drowned out in harmony with the voices of thousands of others. Additionally, the artificial fan noise was loud enough on its own.

Because I frequently catch NBA games on my TV this season, the crowd noise didn’t stick out as unsettling to me. However, if this was one of your first times watching with the added noises, I could definitely see how it might feel distracting or strange.

Due to the constant artificial noises, it was (sadly) difficult to hear the players communicating verbally unless they were standing pretty much directly in front of your seats. As someone who looked forward to catching the occasional swear word from a frustrated player, this part was a bummer.

There was an obvious disconnect between the players and the fans. Typically at NBA home games, the players energize the crowd and vice versa. In this case, it felt like the players were in a snow globe while the fans inquisitively peered in from behind the glass. It was like everyone knew that this wasn’t how things were supposed to be, and it would be inappropriate and silly to pretend like this was not the case.

That factor could have stemmed from the lack of excitement that arose from this particular game, or the significant number of inactive players. Regardless of the reason, it was something I picked up on.

The truth of the matter is, as happy as I was to be back in FedExForum watching my hometown team, it just won’t feel right until the pandemic is under control.

It took attending a game with limited fans for me to realize that 70% of the joy of watching NBA games in person is experiencing the joy with those around you. Springing out of your seat when Ja connects to BC for a lob, sharing a high-five with the stranger sitting next to you who you’ve exchanged friendly words with throughout the game. Those are the moments that truly make the experience so special.

As intangible as those small moments might feel right now, we will get to experience them again. And I think all of us can admit that this time around, we certainly won’t take them for granted.

For more Grizzlies talk, subscribe to the Grizzly Bear Blues podcast network on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and IHeart. Follow Grizzly Bear Blues on Twitter and Instagram.