There is a good chance that if the NBA season comes back the games will be played without fans, and there’s plenty of speculation about how that may feel for the players.
Magic Johnson thinks he knows, because he experienced it.
In 1992, the United States’ basketball “Dream Team” held a scrimmage in Monte Carlo that came to be known as “The Greatest Game Nobody Ever Saw.”
It earned a segment in Sunday’s Episode 5 of the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance,” probably because Michael Jordan has called it “The best game I ever played in” — 10 first-ballot Hall of Famers going head to head.
On the line were bragging rights, and that’s all it took. Johnson can only imagine the intensity if an NBA championship were on the line.
“When you’re going for something and you get past those first few minutes, you don’t know the difference because your competitive juices kick in,” Johnson said during a recent interview. “They’re going to play the game that they love and they’re going to play it 150% like they do with the fans in the stands.
«The only thing they won’t get is that juice when they make a good play or they go on a 12-0 run. There’s nobody there to take them to another level. The crowd takes you to another level. If you’re down, the Lakers fans are some of the best fans in the NBA when they start screaming and hollering. They’ll miss that, but if you think they’re not going to perform just because fans aren’t there, no.”
Johnson played in nine NBA Finals and won five championships, but some of the games he remembers most took place in empty gyms.
“Players play pick-up games with no fans,” Johnson said. “They scrimmage at their facilities without fans. They play in the summertime without fans. We’re already used to playing with no fans. We’ve been doing it our whole lives.»
When the NBA season was suspended March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lakers had a 5½-game lead atop the Western Conference and were three games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the league.
LeBron James recently tweeted, “As soon as it’s safe we would like to finish our season. I’m ready and our team is ready. Nobody should be canceling anything.”
Johnson says he can sympathize. “LeBron and the Lakers are going for something special,” he said. “The Clippers are going for something special. Milwaukee is going for something special. You know those guys are going to come to play. Their egos are on the line. The championship is on the line.
«The guys sitting on the bench have to be jumping up, hollering and screaming and giving them some juice, and they’ll do that. Those guys sitting on that bench are going to be more important than they have ever been before if there are no fans.”
Another interesting dynamic: Without crowd noise, television viewers likely would hear everything — players talking trash, coaches yelling instructions and referees trying to maintain order. For example, the turning point in the Monte Carlo scrimmage wasn’t a play but a comment Johnson made that irked Jordan.
“I said, ‘Michael, you better turn into Air Jordan or we’re going to blow y’all out,’” Johnson said. “Listen man, for the next five minutes this man put on a show and all of us had our mouths open. It was just the most unbelievable thing you’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen anybody play like that.”
If the NBA finishes the season within some kind of bubble, with teams staying at the same hotel property and playing and practicing at connected facilities, it could set the stage for some interesting byplay — which no one will ever see.
After the Monte Carlo scrimmage, Johnson recalled that he, Jordan and Larry Bird were at a hotel restaurant. “Michael gets up to leave and he pats both of us on the shoulders and says, ‘I just want you two to understand there’s a new sheriff in town.’
“We both hit each other and said, ‘He’s not lying.’»