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NBA In 2021: An Unrecognizable Game And Sport

The NBA In 2021 Looks Much Different

Once upon a time in the NBA, you could go to a game and sit courtside. You were so close you could almost, and in some cases successfully, reach out and touch the players. Those days are gone and maybe gone forever. In the current NBA COVID-19 world, you can’t touch anything. Upon entering the arena we were told you must wear a mask at all time and that you would receive two warnings prior to being ejected from the building.

My First NBA Game Since COVID-19 Began

I’ve covered over 500 NBA regular and post-season games in my photojournalism career, and I can tell you one thing for sure: I didn’t recognize anything about this most recent NBA game that I attended and covered. The 2020 defending Eastern Conference Champion and three-time NBA title winners, Miami Heat, were taking on the five-time NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs. With only a handful of games to go before the playoffs begin, it was crazy to see less than 4000 people in the building.

Court-side No More

From a photographic standpoint, we used to sit court-side in front of the expensive seats with our legs crossed on the floor. It made for spectacular dunk images, feature shots and action photos that were unlike any other sport I’ve ever covered. In the NBA pre-COVID days, I used to be able to mount all sorts of remote cameras on the post and attend to those cameras court side.

MIAMI, FL – FEBRUARY 27: Forward LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat wears a mask to begin the game against the New York Knicks at AmericanAirlines Arena on February 27, 2014 in Miami, Florida.

Now I have to wear a mask and stand in an overhead position 30 rows off the court, shooting down on the players instead of up into their faces. I used to be able to make one of a kind pre-game images of Lebron James and his now infamous ‘Black Mask’ (only mask in the building tree years ago) looking right at me! Now I am relegated to shooting pre-game from 60 feet overhead and getting mostly unusable shots.

NBA in 2021

The images coming out of the NBA do not resemble anything I’ve ever seen in decades of coverage of the sport. If you thought the bubble was an anomaly or simply an experiment for just one season because of the COVID pandemic, you are wrong. This scene of hockey glass surrounding the court and the fans being pushed back away from the players is probably here to stay.

Adjusting To A New Permanent “Normal”

Everyone has to wear masks, stay 6-feet apart, and socially distance (floor stickers remind you regularly.) There are also health notifications at every entrance (including the jumbotron), and an uneasy feeling of danger just entering the building, regardless of whether or not you’re vaccinated. Some of these features and reminders may eventually go away, but the opportunity for fans and media to be close to the action is probably history.

Up Close Photos May Be A Thing Of The Past

The spectacular ‘clean’ photography that singled out one or two players in a moment of peak action will be overtaken by busy backgrounds of advertising logos and video boards. I’m all for player and coaching safety and don’t want anybody to get sick. It is simultaneously difficult for me to understand how players can run around and crash into each other with no masks on. You also see coaches pull their masks down to talk to players during a time-out and it seems odd that that is the safest environment that can be provided. 

Upon entering the arena, there were no temperature checks. They did ask questions about whether or not you have been exposed, are feeling ill or if you have knowingly had any contact or symptoms related to COVID. But this is all reliant on the honor system. They did have the hockey glass I mentioned surrounding the court but that was about 15-feet tall and there were fans in the upper and middle decks. Those fans were breathing, shouting and coughing into air that was circulating throughout the entire arena without a doubt. There was a designated eating area where people where smoking and not wearing masks.

I guess what I’m saying in this article is that it’s pretty amazing that we even have sports back. It’s awesome that the NBA found a way to finish their season in a bubble last year and conduct their season this year with limited fans in their buildings.

That being said, they are quite far from the traditional feel and look of attending a game. Will we ever see them go back to “normal?” This still remains a mystery- one that I hope turns out to provide the fans with an even better experience then before COVID-19. The fans are what should really matter at the end of the COVID changes, as they really are the ones essentially paying the bills and keeping the lights on for the NBA.

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About The Author
Marc Serota
Marc Serota
As a Portrait photographer Marc Serota has lensed iconic athletes and celebrities for CORBIS and GETTY as well as major brands such as Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the NBA, NHL and the NFL. Serota is a renowned award winning photographer having logged 25+ years with news agencies such as REUTERS, Getty Images, The Associated Press and UPI shooting the biggest entertainment, news and sports stories from the early 1990’s to the present. Marc has covered numerous Super Bowls, Olympic games, NHL Stanley Cup’s, NASCAR races, ATP and PGA events. Visit Marc's website: Follow Marc Serota @G_O_A_T_shooter on Twitter and @marcserota on Instagram.
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