The NBA bubble is a weird place to play. It doesn’t matter if you’re a green rookie or a seasoned veteran, playing in an empty arena in front of virtual fans is an adjustment.
And if you’re four-time MVP LeBron James, who has played in front of full, loud arenas for most of the past couple decades, it’s a really big adjustment. Several weeks into the NBA’s bubble restart, the Los Angeles Lakers star admitted that he’s still working to get acclimated to it.
James struggling to adapt
“I am getting more and more used to being out there. It’s a very weird dynamic. I haven’t played in an empty gym in a very, very long time," James said on Saturday night after the Lakers’ latest loss, via USA Today. "It’s been a very long time since no one has been watching me play the game. I’m just trying to find that rhythm and lock in.”
James said that he can’t remember ever playing a game that “really counted” in front of an empty gym. Fans have been ever-present at his games since breaking out and attracting notice as a high school freshman 20 years ago. But it’s not just the lack of fans, it’s the entire setting that has James struggling to get comfortable — though he feels like he’s made some strides.
“I’m getting more and more comfortable playing in an empty gym,” James said. “Just having the backdrop here is a lot different from playing in a high school gym or a college arena where you’re playing in the summer time, whatever the case may be. It’s very dark, extremely dark. You can literally hear a feather hit the ground. I’m just getting more and more comfortable playing with my game here in the bubble.”
James says he’s still getting adjusting, but his numbers don’t seem to be suffering much at all. In five games he’s shooting 45.2 percent and averaging 21.6 points a game, with 9.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists. Those are all a little lower than what he was averaging before the shutdown, but it’s far from alarming. (If you want to talk alarming, the Lakers’ 2-4 record in the bubble is what you’re looking for. Woof.)
LeBron: ‘The fans are missed’
James originally took a hard-line stance on playing without fans when the COVID-19 pandemic first began to hit the U.S. in March. He said that he plays for the fans, so how could he play without them?
A few days later he changed his tune, as people started to understand the enormity of the pandemic. The NBA shut down shortly after, and he’s remained on board ever since. He still misses the fans, though.
“The fans are missed,” James said to USA Today. “I hope that someday the pandemic and COVID can get under wraps, and we can take all the precautions that’s needed and get it figured out in America where we can get our fans back into our arenas and stadiums and things of that nature. It’s huge for sports.”
Until then, he’ll have to keep getting comfortable with playing in front of virtual fans in empty arenas. He won’t stop longing for the return of fans, though. Any kind of fan.
“I definitely miss our fans being at Staples Center, and also going against the fans that boo me,” James said.
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