The NBA Virtual Fan Experience Is More About Camaraderie Than Basketball

There’s something particularly odd about basketball — particularly playoff basketball — without fans. While they’re integral to the experience in baseball and football and hockey and soccer, the way we consume the sport of of basketball is built on how close fans can be. There is nothing quite like the fact that fans sit at the edge of the court, with no walls or glass between them and those who play the game. Hell, players going crashing into the fans as part of a play is a somewhat common occurrence.

One could argue that this is what hammers home how odd the current situation in the NBA is. Sure, the entire concept of a Bubble at an amusement park amid — [gestures vaguely at everything] — is weird enough. And then, you turn on the games, and they look like basketball, and they sound like basketball, and everything that is going on seems like the NBA basketball we all know and love.

There’s just one strange exception: The fans that make the environments in which basketball is played so electric aren’t there. Well, that’s not 100 percent true. Fans are “in attendance,” they’re just not there in person. In an attempt to somewhat shorten the distance between fans and players as everyone is locked inside their homes and apartments during the COVID-19 pandemic, the faces of fans are displayed on a collection of screens around the court. Some are behind the benches, some are at center court, some are behind the baskets, some of them are Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong, some of them are me, covering my mouth as I unknowingly am virtually seated directly behind Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong.

I — along with Dime’s own Martin Rickman — was one of the fans that did the whole virtual fan thing for Game 3 of the series between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics through Michelob Ultra. It was, admittedly, not nearly as dystopian as I anticipated, although the experience ended up being less about basketball than I anticipated, too.

Here’s how the whole thing works: You get an email with a virtual ticket, you hop into Microsoft Teams, and then, like any sort of virtual hangout you have ever done, you and a bunch of folks from all over are tossed into a big virtual room, one where a number of strangers (although, funny enough, some folks with Dime bylines were in our room). Some liked the Celtics, some liked the Sixers, some were neutrals, and some, as previously mentioned, played for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and seemed to have had a pretty fun time with the entire experiment.

Watching the games is an odd experience. While in Teams, things are set up so that one half of the screen is your section of fans and the other half is the game, which is a good 10 seconds ahead of ESPN or TNT (I made it a point to have it on in the background) and causes the fan in your computer to roar like a jet engine. In a fun twist, your seat on your computer is not the same as your seat on the video boards, which can make trying to find yourself a bit of a challenge when the camera pans and you get a glimpse of the various crowds. That’s a bit cumbersome, as is the fact that the stream of the game on your laptop doesn’t always fit into the space allocated — sometimes the basket was cut off, sometimes you couldn’t see the scorebox, etc.

Long story short, it’s not exactly the most pleasant way to watch a basketball game. There are some ways that it works really well, and if those ways get ironed out, it is certainly something that teams can work to apply the games going forward. But at the same time, watching a basketball game isn’t the No. 1 priority. Instead, that would be giving people who love basketball the opportunity to do some kind of communal experience at a time when everyone, if they want to play a role in stopping the spread of a virus, shouldn’t be doing any sort of communal experience in person.

While you’re seated in your virtual see with other people scattered all over the United States, conversations happen. As a group, you talk about the game, you talk about basketball, you mention where you’re from, you do all the sorts of things that you would normally do with people around you at a basketball game. Reactions occur as things happen on the basketball court, and you’re afforded the opportunity to gauge your reaction alongside that of others. Our group had one individual named DJ Hype who took it on himself to act as the master of ceremonies in the group — he tried to organize a wave, which while noble did not go particularly well, and led little conversations with individuals in the crowd.

At halftime, Pippen and Armstrong participated in a Q and A with fans. They answered questions about Anthony Davis, about Luka Doncic and Euro ballers, about who they would take number one in the Draft (Pippen said LaMelo Ball). At one point, a young hooper named Xavier asked about drills that he and his sister can do to get better, so Pippen gave him some advice.

“When I grew up, I wasn’t a great basketball player,” Pippen said. “I believed in my dream and I worked hard at it. Physically, I knew I had to get stronger, but I stayed in the gym, working on my ball-handling, working on just the little things [like] footwork. And I believed in myself, man. My advice to you is if you believe in yourself, don’t let nobody outwork you.”

It was, legitimately, fun. The entire idea of the virtual fan experiment is to make it feel like there are fans at a basketball game. That cannot happen without all the things that make going to a basketball game fun, and while some of them cannot be replicated right now, one thing that can be replicated is the sense of camaraderie you feel with everyone who is around you while you are watching a game. There is no distance through this medium in which that can’t happen to one extent or another.

Doing watch parties on Netflix or hopping on a group call with your friends once every week or two to talk about how things are going have becoming all too common occurrence over the last couple of months. Taking that general idea and applying it to basketball is some sort of an attempt at normalcy. Even if it’s not something that can necessarily be replicated, and even if going to a basketball game in person is always going to be preferable, for now, this gets the job done.