Basketball In The Time Of Coronavirus
I've been doing this thing lately where I go to a game but I don't write about the game. It's just a phase, and I promise to get back to actual "reporting" soon, but I didn't leave the Rutgers game on Sunday thinking about how we were 5-3 and that going 1-3 during the Baylor-Duke-Missouri-Rutgers stretch was just about the worst worst-case scenario for a team I was hoping would be in the top-3 by now. Instead, I left the game thinking about how strange this sports/Covid experience has become.
It's obviously "odd". There's no fans, there's no noise unless it's piped-in, nothing happens at halftime, the benches are socially distanced because... actually why are the benches socially distanced if everyone is tested daily and they're all huddled up every four minutes? But I figured I'd dig deep into the experience and show you what it's really like inside these arenas. Nobody says dial-up warning anymore but.. dial-up warning.
First off, the RAC is a trapezoid. I put this picture on Twitter and someone commented that it looked like a Russian prison. I responded that I'd prefer to see Paul Mulcahy in a Russian prison.
It just sucks losing inside a trapezoid, you know? pic.twitter.com/S2Lc4eBvXV— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) December 21, 2020
Second, it's a very small gym, as you probably know. Welsh-Ryan Arena at Northwestern seats 8,100. The RAC seats 8,000. So this was probably not the best place to use when writing this story. The weirdness was cranked up a whole bunch at Banker's Life Arena in Indianapolis for the Baylor game. You're in this massive NBA arena that seats more than 20,000 and there's 180 people in the building.
But the RAC allowed me to take some photos (admittedly iPhone photos) from different angles. I talked to the SID, and he said I could go over to the second level above the Illinois bench in the second half. As a side-note, the RAC is kind of perfect for the Big Ten Covid rules. The idea is that everyone is socially distanced from the players. There's a "here's all the people who were tested this morning" zone (the players, the officials, the scoreboard operator, etc) on the lower level and there's a "here's all the people either covering the game or working security" zone on the upper level which is distanced from the court.
In the first half I sat in the media seats above the baseline on the Rutgers end. In the second half, I went up to that second level and watched from either the Rutgers side or the Illinois side so I could observe the benches and take some photos. Here's a screencap from the highlights - that's me in the mask to the left of the 1450 sign:
The Rutgers media is there in the middle (behind Kofi's head). So throughout the second half I walked up and around that pressbox to take photos from either the Rutgers end or the Illinois end. As you can see, there's three rows of cardboard cutouts in front of me, then there's a dropoff (I think this is where the bleachers were pushed in), and then in front you see the team benches.
That's what made the RAC kind of the perfect place for Coronavirus basketball. The masked media and security guards are all on that upper level, well removed from the benches. Then there's a "lower bowl" (more or less high school bleachers) that are pushed in leaving plenty of room for the socially distanced risers (for the benches) and such.
I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the pregame.
I'd imagine most fans would quite love to be me right now. Meaning, you walk in, it's an empty gym, and you're one of maybe 15 people there to cover the game (including announcers, media, photographers). So it's your 13th-ranked (now 18th-ranked) basketball team, right there, in the flesh, warming up in front of you. When I tweet photos like this, I generally get "do you know how lucky you are?" responses. I do.
But I still feel an obligation. I'm not in fan mode. I want to make sure I see anything that's reportable. If it's "why isn't Trent in uniform like everyone else?", that needs to be out there on Twitter.
Now, I'm still excitable. So when Coleman Hawkins hit five threes in a row, I quickly grabbed my phone to film the next four. He really, really wanted the ball to try for 10 in a row.
The teams went to their locker rooms and the entire gym was eerily quiet. I can describe it to you, and you might think it sounds weird, but it's really a "you had to be there" thing. It's so, so creepy. There's a college basketball game about to start - a game between two ranked teams which will be broadcast on ESPN2 - and there's barely a sound in the entire building besides some music playing. It feels like everyone forgot the game started at 1:00 EST. So, so weird.
The teams finally come out for final warmups. When they do, the Rutgers pyrotechnics guys had forgotten about pregame layup drills and had rolled one of their boxes out to the court. Ayo is getting ready to start the layup line and he notices this box sitting on the court near the lane. Ayo walks over to the box and looks in the hole. I'm "I worry about everything guy", so I freak out thinking that someone's going to accidentally hit the pyrotechnics button while Ayo is peering down the hole.
The pyrotechnics guy comes out to roll it to the baseline and the layup line begins.
As it turned out, it wasn't really pyrotechnics. At least not like the ones they sometimes use in the State Farm Center. These were more like... a big puff of steam with some lights shining up in the steam. You could see it when they dimmed the lights for player intros, but when they fired them up at the end of the national anthem, it just looked like.. puffs of steam.
Still - Ayo, please don't look in the holes of any boxes like that. And wrap yourself in bubble wrap when you go anywhere.
OK, so let's talk about the noise. Every team has a different level of noise. The first Illini basketball game was the craziest physical thing I've ever experienced (who gets nauseous and has to leave because a speaker is pointed directly at him blasting fake crowd noise?). It was too loud, so this last game (Minnesota) was maybe 1/4th the volume (good work, SFC crew). Then the Baylor game at Banker's Life had zero crowd noise, so you're in this giant cavern and all you can hear is the squeaking of sneakers 75 yards away.
The football games all had different levels of crowd noise. Rutgers was fine. Nebraska was louder but nothing too aggressive, although it was so incredibly weird that they didn't turn the crowd noise off when their player was being loaded onto a stretcher. The one point where it IS completely silent during a sold-out game, and they're playing cheering fans over it while all of the players have taken a knee.
Penn State was awful. I'm convinced the guy playing the sound had his buddy there, and they used to mess around with speakers in their cars back in high school, and he turned to his buddy and said "check this puppy out" before blaring all of these lion sounds and songs and crowd noises that were incredibly dumb. I didn't really notice its awfulness until I went down to the field for the interview (you're behind glass in the pressbox, and all of the sound is directed at the stands and the field).
Here's a video I took as Illinois came out for the first play of that drive. Can anyone explain a hype man screaming "make some noooOOOooooOOoise" when there's not one single fan at the game?
Check out the play clock there. Officials have set the ball, music is still going (it's so loud on the field), it seems like Isaiah is waiting for it to stop before barking out signals, but then it's suddenly down to 5 seconds and we snap into action.
It's just so dumb that we do this, right? They didn't do this when Penn State had the ball. You're telling me that in the name of "games will sound weird without it", we're letting sound guys push the limits of the opposing offense being able to communicate? Again, there were no fans in the stands, not even parents. The Pennsylvania Governor had made a change to their guidelines that week and no fans were allowed. So you're not playing that music for anything other than background noise for the TV cameras. And THAT's the background noise you need? MAKE SOME NOooOOoOoOOOise?? It's all so very stupid.
OK, back to Rutgers. We haven't even gotten to the beginning of the game.
Basketball is completely different. There's low-level crowd noise, and there's piped-in music, and in the first Illini game there was even high-level crowd noise, but it's not MAKE SOME NOoooOOOoOOOOoOoOooooOOOise. In what I believe to be the most fascinating development of the 2020/21 season, the noise comes from the benches. The flow of the game, the push and pull of momentum - so much of that can be sensed by the sound coming from the bench guys, walkons, and student managers.
Here's the difference between a loud bench in an empty arena and a quiet bench in an empty arena. You need to watch these videos back to back.
What it sounded like when Rutgers had the ball:
What it sounded like when Illinois had the ball:
That was most of the game. Loud, then quiet, then loud, then quiet. Rutgers' bench got into the game in the second half (fair weather fans, basically, but I'll get to that in a bit). First, one more first-half thing.
I don't think Trent stepped out of bounds. It looked like he was going to, but I don't think he did. I was filming this to get some more Rutgers bench noise, but I happened to catch what I believe was an anticipation call:
Anyway, it doesn't matter. At halftime I could tell that they had turned down the crowd noise in the speakers to just a low murmur. But it was the weirdest sound. I don't know who studied all of this, and there's an entire master's thesis to be written some day on fake crowd noise during the coronavirus pandemic, but this is the sound they came up with.
(Oh, and when I reached the phone in front of the speaker to record the sound, I caught a Rutgers manager doing a weird little dance.)
I wandered around at halftime taking more photos. Like this one, which I choose to read as "This Is Rhouse":
Being the worrier that I am, I also noticed these steps in front of Rutgers bleachers (let's face it - this is a fancy high school gym and those are bleachers with seats). Are we sure that's the best design concept? That dive to save the ball that Adam Miller made in the Duke game - he would have run head first into the pointy corner of one of these steps, right? I think the Ade Adeyamo injury in the UCLA game did this to me. I'm always looking for "why is that thing so close to the action??".
Just after I took this photo I talked to the Rutgers SID and he gave me the parameters on where I could move to. So I spent the second half up above the benches (as shown in the highlight screencap above).
This is where the "socially distanced benches" thing became even more weird to me. I don't know why I hadn't thought about it during the other games, but what's the point of chairs separated like this:
If every four minutes during a TV timeout it's just going to be this:
And while we're on the subject of "really??", I don't really understand these Rutgers staff members being this close to the court. Maybe they're tested every day with the team so they're allowed to be in the DMZ between the masked attendees above and the unmasked (but tested every day) players below. I thought the whole point was a big separation so that there wasn't the tiniest chance of someone coughing towards the players from 10 feet away?
Anyway, now we're to the petty "fair weather fans" bit. I need to take my time here because I want to describe this accurately.
The Illinois bench brought the energy, man. This will hurt, but it was like going to an Iowa football game. The fans are INVOLVED, man. I'm not saying it's the loudest stadium or whatever - just that everything that happens during the game gets its own unique fan noise. Good, bad, winning, losing - the fans stay involved.
That was the Illinois bench. From the word go. Really impressive volume from, what, 15 guys when you include the student managers? They were in the game the whole time.
The Rutgers bench (this will hurt again) was a crowd at an Illinois football game. We've been hurt so long that we can't cheer something in the first half. Something is going to go wrong in the second half. It always does.
So the Rutgers bench barely made a sound until they grabbed the lead in the second half. They simply cheered for made baskets and that's it. I found myself having this "my gosh, come on, guys" reaction when they'd just sit there in silence.
And then I caught myself and realized this wasn't fair. They're bench players and walkons and student managers. They didn't sign up to chant "dee-fense (clap-clap)". But that's quickly what it's becoming during Covid Big Ten games. Thanks, Ohio.
What I'm trying to describe: I'm at a game on the road. I've been to a lot of road games so I understand the environment. And even though the benches are only 1/20th the volume of what normal fans would make, it still feels like the flow of a regular, crowd-attended game to me. So that "come on, guys" feeling comes from a place of fandom. "Rutgers is coming back - why are their fans so incredibly silent. Oh, right, they're not really fans - that's just the bench."
But then the Illinois bench would do this and I'd go right back to "why isn't Rutgers doing the same? Do they not care?"
This next one is a photo, not a video, but... I should just explain.
What I was trying to do here, since the second half is always "your offense is in front of your bench", was go to the Rutgers side and record how loud the Illinois bench was getting (yelling the length of the court) and then go to the Illinois side and record how loud the Rutgers bench was yelling (they weren't). But I did that thing where you think you're taking a video and you hit the button and you hold it there "filming" and you hit the button again and all you did was take two photos.
But it wouldn't have mattered. This is what the Rutgers bench looked like most of the game:
Well, I should say that. They did get up and scream "AND ONE" one time when Larry Scirotto called a foul before the shot. He paused as he was walking towards the scorers table, turned to the Rutgers managers, and told them, politely, to, uh, shut up.
The biggest non-"yay, we scored" reaction from the Rutgers bench? They really, REALLY enjoyed waving good-bye to Andre Curbelo when he fouled out:
Please file this one away for the next Rutgers matchup, Belo.
I just re-read some of this and I feel like I'm being a little unfair to the Rutgers players. It's not that they didn't make noise. When Ron Harper Jr was going through his little 7-for-8 "I can't miss" streak, they were incredibly loud. I'm just saying that the Rutgers bench was loud for made baskets and quiet for everything else and the Illinois bench was loud the whole game.
And that really did provide the "feeling" that this was a Big Ten tournament game and Illinois brought six times more fans. That's the vibe. You completely forget that it's just the benches, you don't care that it's not very loud, and you fall back into your game-watching patterns where you can't help but wonder why the home fans are sitting on their hands so much. And then you realize it's just the bench players. And then you forget again.
In the end, this was Rutgers' day. Illinois attempted a comeback, Rutgers hit six shots in a row to force the Illini bench to stop cheering. Dagger after dagger. They played harder, they won.
I did have the thought in the second half that it's really weird to have an environment where no one is yelling at the ref (besides the head coach, and you can barely hear one person). If this is an Illinois home game, and Illinois is up by 11, and then that lead slowly shrinks, and the second half fouls get Rutgers to the double bonus while only being called for three fouls on their end, regardless of whether they're good or bad calls, the boos would be absolutely deafening. It made me wonder if the three refs in this game were even aware of the free throw discrepancy.
Not that they should be. Here's another thing I'll attempt to explain and fail. Big Ten referees aren't supposed to balance out the fouls. If one team is hacksville and the other team plays defense with their hands behind their backs, there's going to be a foul discrepancy. In a perfect world, the officials simply call the fouls they see.
But I don't think anyone thinks that games are called like that. There's an attempt to be balanced, I think. The term "make-up foul" exists. Even if it's only a subconscious thought, when Bo Boroski's crew has the fouls 11-2 in the first half of a game, with only two fouls called on the visitors, that arena gets so incredibly "are you kidding me?" that it's impossible for him to not sense that fouls must be wildly unbalanced. How he reacts to that is another topic. It always felt like Teddy V would lean into it. But we've seen enough games where fouls were 9-2 in the second half and suddenly they're 10-8 in the second half to at least think there's something to the officials A) being worked by the head coach and B) realizing from the hate being sent their way in the form of boos that the fouls must be horribly unbalanced. Even on road games where there's a small (but very vocal) visitors section.
And that doesn't exist in a game like this. Brad Underwood was really after Scirotto and Rob Riley. Thought he might get a T. And it made me wonder how the officials navigate this environment. It has to change some of those "subconscious" things discussed above.
Anyway, Harper was the best player, Rutgers won, we're 5-3. We head to Penn State tomorrow night for an "if this game goes south, hoooo-boy" contest against a Penn State team that has been much better than anyone expected after firing their coach. It's still not Christmas, so there's no desperation yet, but hoooo-boy do we need this one.
I think that's it. I hate that we lost to Missouri because I can't even make a joke about how Rutgers, despite it being 30 years since their last NCAA Tournament, has a "Hall Of Fame" painted on the wall and they include their 1976 Final Four team in that Hall of Fame. If we had beaten Missouri, I would have shown the picture and then made some joke about how even Rutgers has a Final Four yet Missouri still can't get there.
Whoops. How'd that get in there.