Basketball in the NBA bubble begins on a quiet, made-for-TV stage at Disney

But George’s shot, which came just before halftime in the Clippers’ 99-90 victory over the Orlando Magic, prompted only one woman to clap three times, reflexively, before realizing she was alone in celebrating. The rest of the Arena, one of three restricted gyms utilized by the NBA for its Disney World restart, was almost entirely silent.

Because of the league’s rigorous approach to reducing the novel coronavirus risk to players, there were no fans, no cheerleaders and no mascots at the first scrimmage before the NBA resumes regular season play on July 30. A cameraman was positioned on the sideline, two ballboys in masks and gloves sat on the baseline, and two scouts and roughly a dozen media members watched from about 15 feet back from the court.

Fourteen people, including the public address announcer, official scorer, shot clock operator and team public relations officials, sat at a courtside table, which was surrounded by tall Plexiglas walls, like a hockey penalty box, to limit contact with players and coaches. All told, there appeared to be fewer than 200 people visible from the court, including the players and coaches, who sat on physically distanced chairs and hydrated with personal bottles rather than large buckets. Some members of the coaching staff and inactive players wore masks on the bench as they took their seats for the first time since the NBA season was indefinitely suspended March 11.

“It’s different when you walk out on the floor, but when the game starts it’s just basketball,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “Once you get in between the lines, you can make the case that’s as comfortable as the players will ever be or as normal as everything will ever be. You could see the rust and all that, but for [the players] they were back in their natural habitat.”

The Arena, which is part of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, would be more accurately named the Set. The facility is the NBA’s premier stage, and it will play host to the conference finals and Finals. There was never any doubt that the NBA’s resumed season would be a made-for-television event, but the much-anticipated first look at bubble basketball revealed layers to the league’s presentation strategy.

Bright studio lights illuminated the playing area, and a steady stream of rap songs played over the sound system to add life. Rather than broadcast empty seats in the background, the NBA erected a large video board behind the benches that rotated through team logos, cheer slogans, and player graphics. Nodding to the many changes, the NBA’s restart slogan — “Whole New Game” — was visible in every direction.

A mobile camera placed on the sideline followed the action by moving along a dolly, and countless other cameras were fixed around the court. With no need for a Jumbotron above the court to serve fans, the scoreboard was moved to the wall across from the benches so that players and coaches could view it more easily. Smaller scoreboards were placed near the baselines.

Instead of going through the full pomp and circumstance of pregame introductions, the starters were quickly announced and play commenced. When the public address welcomed the Clippers to the court, they received no response. There was no playing of the national anthem, a time-efficient decision that conveniently allowed the league to sidestep a divisive political issue. The words “Black Lives Matter” did appear prominently on the playing surface, part of joint efforts with the National Basketball Players Association to address players’ concerns about distracting from ongoing social justice protests.

Because the Clippers were the scrimmage’s designated home team, the video boards and sound effects played to their favor. When Orlando brought the ball up court, artificial “Dee-fense” chants echoed through the building.

“When I was watching the game for the first six minutes, I thought it was cool that when somebody scored they had their own graphics on the screen,” Clippers guard Lou Williams said. “I heard the ‘defense’ chants. Once I was on the court, I didn’t see it, hear it or feel it. I was locked into the game. I don’t know who that experience was for because there’s no fans in the arena. But it definitely wasn’t for us.”

To say there was a buzz in the building would be an overstatement. The crowd — which included league personnel, Clippers President Lawrence Frank and Magic General Manager John Hammond — largely opted for respectful silence, as if they were watching golfers or violinists. The scrimmage did not count in the standings, the 10-minute quarters were shortened from the NBA’s typical 12-minute periods, four key Clippers players were not present due to various health situations, and stars such as George and Kawhi Leonard played limited minutes as they ramp up to full conditioning.

These conditions contributed to a general sense of informality. After the game, players wore sweats rather than designer clothes. Throughout the night, the coaching staffs donned their new uniform of matching polo shirts, dark pants, and dress sneakers, rather than the full suits that are the NBA’s custom. Rivers said he “loved” the change, adding that he might feel compelled to dress to the nines if his team advances to the NBA Finals.

The players appeared immediately for postgame interviews at a cutout cubicle in the concourse just off the court, their promptness owing to the need to bus back to their hotel to shower in their own rooms to reduce coronavirus risk. George, usually a slow dresser and a willing talker, wasted no time and, like a number of other players in the bubble, redirected all basketball questions.

“Breonna Taylor, rest in peace,” George told a small cluster of on-site reporters and a larger group listening in via a Zoom call. “George Floyd, rest in peace. There are so many others that have been brutally murdered by the hands of the police. That’s my message. That’s all I’ve got.”

For writers in attendance, there was a new thrill: hearing the players, coaches and referees interact on the court. Rivers chided one of his younger players for an obvious traveling violation, while Magic Coach Steve Clifford screamed “Memphis!” to call a play. George lobbied the officials for a charging call, and the Clippers’ bench exploded to celebrate unselfish passes and key three-pointers. Sneakers squeaked all night.

The building’s empty seats were kept in the dark, and the unused arena bowl behind the television screen looked like the backstage area of a major concert. Piles of audio and video equipment were strewn about alongside exercise bikes, large sheets of plywood and other oddities. Adding to the surrealism, white-suited cleaning teams waited in the hallway behind large black curtains, ready to disinfect the court as soon as the game ended.

Still, the NBA’s Disney debut was surprisingly competitive and it delivered a sense of accomplishment. Months of planning led to this moment, and the game came off without a hitch. While basketball’s conclusion still lies nearly three months in the future, its return is officially underway.