A different vibe at NBA All-Star Sunday

By Sarah K. Spencer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

ATLANTA - There would typically be a jam-packed arena of screaming fans.

This time, there were about 1,500 people in State Farm Arena’s stands - masked and distanced - made up of frontline workers, community partners and HBCU alumni, students and faculty, along with virtual fans tuning in from home.

Usually, there are three days of All-Star events, culminating in a game between two teams made up of the best players in the league. This time, there were no additional community or fan events, and the skills challenge, 3-point contest, dunk contest and game itself were compressed into a one-night event spanning a few hours.

For a typical All-Star weekend, there wouldn’t be strict restrictions placed on players, who along with their family and friends stayed in a mini-bubble at a hotel as the NBA tries to get through the 2020-21 season. But, amid the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 NBA All-Star looked much different than normal, with a tamped-down vibe Sunday the Hawks’ State Farm Arena.

The arena holds about 17,000, but this was advertised as a made-for-TV event, with Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and NBA commissioner Adam Silver asking fans not to travel to Atlanta for the game.

However, one unique aspect of this year’s game was the featuring of historically Black colleges and universities throughout the night, which was involved in everything from court design to entertainment and performances to financial support. Through the event, league provided more than $3 million in support of the HBCU community. Seven-time Grammy winner Gladys Knight, a graduate of Shaw University, one of the oldest HBCUs in the nation, sang the national anthem live from the arena, Grammy winner Alessia Cara sang the Canadian anthem from Toronto. Clark Atlanta University Philharmonic Society Choir performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before the game.

From their campuses, Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band and Florida A&M University Marching 100 played during player introductions.

Overall, on Sunday, the day got off to the exact opposite optics the league was hoping for, as Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were ruled out due to contact tracing, prompting more questions regarding the need to play the game.

The league was met with plenty of criticism, including from Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Star captain LeBron James, of the Lakers, for having a game at all, when more than 30 games this season have been canceled due to health and safety protocols or contract tracing.

But, the game went on as scheduled.

For some players, this was their first time playing in front of fans since last season.

“Obviously it’s going to be hard because whenever you go to play in the All-Star game, you always, it’s always like a big party, and obviously it’s going to be hard not having that, it’s going to feel a little bit different,” Antetokounmpo said earlier Sunday. “But, 1,500 people, we’re going to go and try and give them a show. Hopefully the can have fun, enjoy it, and it’s been hard. It’s been hard this year not having people come and cheer for their team, because that’s what basketball’s all about … I’m happy that slowly, slowly, if everybody’s being safe, they can come and support us.”

The Bucks and Hawks are among of the 15 NBA teams welcoming back fans at a limited capacity. Additional cheers and crowd noise was piped in.

In an interview with the AJC, Silver said the game was the league’s No. 1 source for fan engagement throughout the year, and also spoke to the economics behind the decision. On Saturday, Silver addressed the media, again discussing the rationale behind holding All-Star, conveying that the league feels it has struck the correct balance between everything it wants to prioritize.

“Throughout this pandemic, we’ve sought to find the right balance between the health and safety of our players, the community that’s involved in producing NBA basketball, and of course our fans, along with the economic interests as well of our community,” Silver said. “Add into that social justice issues. So all of that has been on our mind since almost a year ago when we shut down the NBA ... We feel we’ve struck the appropriate balance here, looking out for the interests of everyone involved. We’re very appreciative of the Atlanta Hawks. Tony Ressler, the principal governor. Steve Koonin, the president. Then of course the folks here at State Farm Arena for their willingness to host us over the last few days.”