To say everything is a bit different these days is an understatement. But the NBA is doing everything it can to make things feel normal. No fans are attending NBA games in person. The people you may see during the TV broadcasts or on social media highlights sit in seats on the sideline six feet apart and plastic boards separate the scorer's table. Face masks are being worn. But if you've watched any of the games since the NBA resumed, you'll notice video boards occupied with virtual fans.
On Saturday, August 15, our long-time partner Microsoft invited a select number of athletes to experience the Memphis Grizzlies versus Portland Trail Blazers game in Orlando at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, even though we were thousands of miles away. I was lucky enough to be one of the athletes invited, and I jumped at the opportunity to experience what it's like to be a virtual fan attending an NBA game.
“In partnership with the NBA, we are working to bring fans closer to the game they love. This passion for basketball was definitely evident when athletes from Special Olympics participated as virtual fans.”
Each fan gets one seat and they're required to log into Microsoft Teams 45 minutes before the start of a game, ideally from a laptop or tablet to get the best experience. Once logged in, the live-feed shows a split-screen. On the right is the fan section. To the left is the live game feed. We saw the action as it was happening live, even though people watching at home had a delay. One of my fellow athletes, Daniel Smrokowski from Special Olympics Illinois, was also part of the virtual crowd.
"It was an amazing experience," Smrokowski, a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger, said. "The game was incredible to watch and being able to have the opportunity to watch in such a unique way was amazing for my fellow athletes. I'd do it again."
We cheered. We conversed. There were Portland fans and there were Memphis fans. We did everything we could to make it feel like a typical game for the players and the fans watching at home.
“Through virtual high fives and plenty of cheering, Special Olympics teammates and competitors alike were able to fill the 17-foot digital screens in the arena with lots of energy and support their favorite teams,” Robbins added.
Another athlete, Novie Craven from Special Olympics DC, had this to say about the experience, “I had an amazing time watching the NBA game virtually. It was my first time watching something virtually. I had a lot of fun.”
During the play-in game for the final spot in the NBA Western Conference Playoffs, the Trail Blazers beat the Grizzlies, 126-122. Throughout the game, the fan section erupted with emotion anytime a big play was made, especially by Grizzlies rookie sensation Ja Morant.
"My favorite part was near the end when the two teams kept going back and forth. But even though his team lost, watching Ja Morant play the way he did that was fun and my favorite part."
The Trail Blazers trailed 94-89 entering the fourth quarter. They narrowed the gap to two points with under four minutes remaining. CJ McCollum hit one from beyond the arc and Jusuf Nurkic successfully converted a three-point play for the Trail Blazers to take the lead, 114-111. Minutes later, Carmelo Anthony hit a huge three-pointer to put the Trail Blazers up by six, 122-116, to put the game out of reach for the Grizzlies.
Basketball is one of the most popular sports among Special Olympics athletes, with over 300,000 athletes competing globally and nearly 164,000 athletes competing in the North America Region alone. To support that popularity, Special Olympics has had a relationship with the NBA dating back 45 years. Damian Lillard, who scored a team-high 31 points and added 10 assists for the Trail Blazers, is also a Special Olympics Global Ambassador. During the game, I thought to myself, “this is so cool the NBA and Lillard set this up.” But I came to find out those were happy coincidences, and it was Microsoft who came to Special Olympics with the opportunity.
It was just a cherry on top that the game picked to host Special Olympics athletes was one being played by a Global Ambassador. And since games in the NBA "bubble" started, no player had performed better than Lillard. A month ago, Portland had a 10 percent chance to make the playoffs. Since then, Lillard averaged a bubble-high 37.6 points, 9.6 assists and 12.6 threes per game to clinch his team a spot in the playoffs.
As I sat there, in front of the screen, watching a basketball game as a virtual fan, I appreciated all that went into making this happen including Special Olympics athletes. Times aren't normal right now, but we are making the best of our circumstances and capitalizing on the opportunities we have through Special Olympics. And although I fully appreciated being a virtual fan and know this was an experience not many will be afforded, I still look forward to the day I can enjoy activities like this in person with my fellow Special Olympics athletes.