Masked and socially distanced; I sat in the last row of the Wells Fargo Center for the first Sixers game played in front of fans in nearly a year. Fans sat scattered throughout the stadium in pairs of two or groups of four, cheers were muffled and mingling between fans was discouraged.
In 2020 the NBA was one of the first organizations to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways the cancelling of NBA games was America’s wake up call that the pandemic was a serious issue. Now in the middle of March 2021 the worst of COVID-19 appears to be behind us and slivers of normalcy are peaking through the clouds.
How was the Sixers game post-COVID?
Weird. Rules were still in place that didn’t quite make any sense. A food purchase was mandatory along with the sale of any beer, making the cost of an alcoholic beverage skyrocket from $14 to about $24, as you’re forced to buy a $10 pretzel. The entire Wells Fargo Center was cashless as well.
It felt like an upscale AAU game. A red carpet reminiscent of a hotel conference room surrounds the court. Players walked freely from behind the net to the elongated, socially distanced bench.
Being that it was the first game back in front of fans, the in-game entertainment was adapting to life after COVID. Journalist Ukee Washington performed the pregame tradition of “ringing the bell,” from the safety of a corridor leading into the stadium rather than at half court. As Washington struck the bell from the stands, animations appeared on the hardwood as if he was standing at half court.
Similarly, in-game host Christian Crosby was trying his best. Crosby is recognized as one of the best in-game hosts in the NBA. Normally he’d be making awkward fans feel somewhat normal while they appear on the Jumbotron, but without human contact his role was slightly diminished.
Harnesses and Pulleys.
The Sixers appear to have learned about the power of pulleys during the COVID-19 pandemic. The aforementioned Jumbotron has a brand new feature wherein two large parts of the massive screen set up can now move independently of the big screen. Two large LED screens dropped down from the ceiling as the Sixers came out to play. Weirdly enough, Sixers mascot Franklin was also attached to a harness and dropped from the ceiling at the start of the game.
Both seemed unnecessary, but who am I to judge?
The Sixers Themselves.
Tobias Harris addressed the home crowd before the game, thanking them for attending and expressing that the team missed the fans. With Joel Embiid out, it was a mild shock that Ben Simmons didn’t address the crowd however Simmons’ excitement was palpable as the game went on.
Dwight Howard is electric. I was worried about the Dwight Howard signing when it first took place, but now it seems to be one of the best decisions the Sixers could have made. Looking down from the literal last row in the stadium, Howard can always be spotted pumping up the crowd and engaging with the game from the bench.
There was a single standing ovation that took place during last night’s blowout of the San Antonio Spurs, but I’m not sure what it was for. Tyrese Maxey checked into the game prompting a number of fans to cheer and stand, almost simultaneously the Spurs missed a foul shot granting the entire city of Philadelphia a free small Frosty. The fans cheered earnestly for the rookie and their frozen chocolate treat.
The strangest parts of the restricted Sixers game came in the form of empty bathrooms and foregone high fives. The human connection with other fans was lost. At halftime men stood with empty urinals in between them, unknowing of what the new social norm was.
Free t-shirts and microfiber towels draped our seats so we’d know where to sit. Underneath those goodies was a Velcro sign that read “please sit here.” After paying $3.12 for a side cup of cheese from Chickies and Pete’s; I decided that the Velcro sign was also a part of the giveaway.
Ultimately, I felt safe the entire time. Stadium security tightly enforced mask rules, and the stadium felt empty. I attended last night’s game because I wanted to witness a bit of history. The first Sixers game in front of fans after an international pandemic was both a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
We’re almost back to normalcy, but what is the new normal?