The Orlando Magic opened the doors to the Amway Center for the first time, creating a somewhat odd experience as basketball resumed.
On TV, the game looks the same.
The sound effects, the cheers, the chants, the crowd noise. The game itself looks the same and feels the same on camera. This is NBA basketball. Once the ball is tipped, there is only the game.
That is how it should feel at least.
But this is not a normal time. This is not a normal season. Everything is just slightly askew, something of a funhouse mirror of the way the world should be. There is a reflection of something normal, but it is not.
What you see on TV is not exactly what it feels like in person.
Sure, Paul Porter got on the public address system as the Star Wars opening fanfare played before the start of the fourth quarter and urged fans to stand and cheer for their Orlando Magic, it felt a little empty.
With just friends and family of team personnel — and all in masks — it was hard for the crowd to provide much more than a low cheer. The majority of the noise came from the piped-in crowd noise fed in by six new speakers hung from the arena’s ceiling.
There were awkward moments of game operations in there throughout too.
Cole Anthony made a backdoor cut early in the fourth quarter for a lay-in and was called for a travel. The arena game operations piped in a round of booing to simulate a full-throated Magic crowd displeased with the call.
In the first quarter, with DJ D-Strong all the way up in the O-Zone in the upper bowl of the Amway Center, flanked by a few Magic Dancers and 407 Crew and, of course, STUFF, he pulled up the random cam generator to try to get fans in attendance to interact and dance.
It was the most awkward of Awkward Dad Dance Cams ever.
As much as everyone wants this to be the same, this is still something everyone is going to have to get used to.
"“It’s definitely a different feel,” Anthony said after Thursday’s game. “Playing with no fans, you just look around and it’s empty. They recreate sounds in the arena. It’s just not the same looking around and seeing no people. That’s definitely different. That was my first time on that actual court since I have been here. That was pretty cool.”"
Indeed, the Amway Center floor did not get put down until this week as WWE moved out of the building after a nearly four-month residency for its shows. The building is starting to come alive again.
But in the end, the Orlando Magic lost to the Charlotte Hornets 123-115 in their Amway Center debut for the 2021 season Thursday. Ultimately, they struggled to defend well at the start of the game and never quite tracked down the Hornets’ offense.
Then again, everything still feels very new for players and coaches as they try to navigate this season.
And while it might be something overlooked the atmosphere in the arena is certainly part of that equation.
"“It was a little different being in the arena with a different set up and pretty much empty,” Terrence Ross said after Thursday’s game. “Once you start playing, you don’t even realize it. You get lost in the game and that’s pretty much your focus.”"
It will take some getting used to, even at home. The Magic, getting a look at the Amway Center floor for the first time since March, were going into things as blind as the Hornets were in some respects.
They had not seen these sightlines or been in this environment before either. The bubble experience only goes so far.
Coach Steve Clifford said he thinks playing in the bubble, because it was playing without fans and with piped-in noise and the like, will give his veteran players at least some reference point and some experience playing in this kind of muted environment.
But he said it was not something he has talked about his team about. At the end of the day, he said they are just playing and there is not much thought to how different things are.
The experience in the bubble was an interesting experiment in whether homecourt advantage matters. In the seeding round, at least, there was some evidence that home teams still won with their sounds and cheers piped in.
But winning at home is going to be a big piece of the puzzle for the Magic.
Steve Clifford said before the game that having a better home record is one of the team’s top goals for the season. They saw that as an area the team took a step back — going from 23-16 at home in 2019 to 16-15 in 2020 at the Amway Center.
That means getting used to a building that is both familiar and new.
Just look at what the Magic’s locker room looks like now (h/t Evan Fournier):
Everyone is looking for their little slice of normal as this season gets set to begin.
The Amway Center game operations staff deserves a much bigger break than I am giving them here. They need a preseason too and the chance to experiment with what will work and what will not in a stadium that is still largely empty, but not completely so.
The team expects to welcome nearly 2,000 fans for its season opener Wednesday and for the next four home games as they continue to test and rehearse protocols. They hope to admit roughly 25-percent of the stadium’s capacity — about 4,000 fans — for the team’s Jan. 11 game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Those plans are still to be determined.
From the media side, at least, the protocols felt pretty safe and thorough. They performed a temperature check at the door, had us place our own bags on the X-ray machine before going in before herding us to an elevator specifically used by media to take us to our seats.
Before even entering the building, we had to answer an extensive health survey — something fans will also have to do before attending games.
Even with how few people there were around, there was almost no interaction with someone who was also not n the media area (we all are marked with yellow badges and wristbands for the “Yellow Zone”). And it was still fairly easy to stay socially distant.
At least for Thursday’s run through with even more limited fans in the building, people were socially distant and able to enjoy the game.
The team will have to see whether things hold up when they start to scale up to bring more people into the building.
Just like they will have to see if they can hold up on the court and get the ship corrected when the games start to count.
Will this slice of normal become more normal? Eventually.
The players got used to being in the building with its limited fans and piped in noise without much energy getting returned. It will become, like everything else a new normal.
Even if it all still feels a bit odd. But we all have to get used to it.