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Empty Stands

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The Hive is alive but hollow

I watch all the Hornets games. And this year, I’ve watched them all live. I watch a decent amount of national broadcasts, too. And if you think this is a brag, you’re wrong, but you’re on the right site.

While watching the Hornets play these close, energetic games I can’t help but get pumped. LaMelo shoots these rainbow threes and when they hit, they splash. Coach Borrego has the team playing up and down the court; the breaking man playing wide receiver across half court. Charlotte is leading the league in assists with 29 a game and the passes come furiously. So, as I’m getting into the game, I hear the familiar hum of… a crowd?

It doesn’t start out as discernible voices, but a tone. The sound has the quality of snow on a television (do you Gen Z whippersnappers know what television snow is?) but the audio becomes crisper and you hear an approximation of a crowd. There are hoots and hollers that almost match the action like an overdubbed kung fu film. I’ve even heard chants, though I can’t swear it was during a Charlotte home broadcast. For a second, it feels right. But then I think twice and notice what is in front of my eyes, empty stands.

I don’t know if it strikes everyone the same way. It is the sonic equivalent of uncanny valley. There was fake crowd, white noise in the bubble broadcasts, but not the continuous images of empty stands where the fans used to sit. In the bubble there was a large video screen spanning the length of the court. And it worked well. Even the corny, Zoom fan experience brought to you by light beer, had its moments. But when LaMelo Ball connected on that high pick and roll to PJ Washington to become the youngest player ever with a triple double, the emptiness was deafening.

Sure, there was comradery. The 2020-21 Charlotte Hornets are happy to see each other succeed and play that way. But there was no professional wrestling pop of the crowd. The fake crowd increased in volume but not in passion. NBA courts are normally claustrophobic. Fans can be feet, inches away from players and knee to knee with each other. Sometimes an audience member might find a 7’0” 250 pound Shaquille O’Neal in their lap. Or even farther up the steps, you might be on the receiving end of an errant Lance Stephenson pass. (The league isn’t the same without him.)

Shouts to this woman. She wasn’t the only person hurt by the eighth grader’s inconsistent play, but she was the most direct victim. We could all do with a little less screen time.

The hornets are buzzing around .500. The team is starting to explore the nooks and crannies of the pace and space offense. There’s some defense being played, even if it’s a hybrid zone that won’t hold up against elite playmakers. And I’m not telling stories out of school, but I hear tell Malik Monk is getting some minutes. And behind all the drama, fun, turnovers, and game-winning shots are large tarps advertising local corporations. But underneath those tarps are empty stands.

The game of basketball is no stranger to change. And the seats won’t be flipped up forever. I have no doubt that one day I will be able to again awkwardly slide into the B row of a middle section because we bought tickets for much higher. One thing a few decades teaches is that nothing is ever the same. Will the season ticket holders come back? Some undoubtedly will. Some undoubtedly can’t. But I’ll be happy to see some genuine reaction to a Miles Bridges thunder dunk or a Terry Rozier 44 point night. Or I’ll be throwing up my hands when a bandana’d banker bro riles the star of the opposing team we took to game seven in the only glimpse of the second round we’ve had in forty years.

Here’s to Hector Cortes, The Sombrero Man. Here’s to our own British Buzz, James Plowright. Here’s to my brethren in the nose bleeds, victory is sweet even in the cheap seats. I can and am enjoying the Hornets season we’ve seen from our devices so far, but I can’t help but notice the absence of the fans, the fake crowd noise, and those damn empty stands.