OKC Thunder: What it was like to be back in Chesapeake Energy Arena for an NBA game
Every familiar sight and sound at Chesapeake Energy Arena was overshadowed by the emptiness of it all.
Spotlights gliding across vacant seats during the pregame hype video. The starting lineup boisterously announced to no one in particular. An audio recording of Rumble the Bison banging his drum as fans clapped in unison with every beat.
But of course there were no fans present Wednesday night. No Rumble, either. It all felt like a dress rehearsal, but the on-court performance was live and real.
Chesapeake Energy Arena, the scene of the NBA’s COVID-19 shutdown, hosted Thunder basketball for the first time in 280 days.
“It’s kind of crazy to think, like, I haven’t been in this building since that Utah game back in March,” Thunder forward Darius Bazley said after a 124-103 preseason loss to the Bulls.
On March 11, Thunder vice president Donnie Strack sprinted onto the court seconds before tip-off with news that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus. The game was postponed and the season was suspended for almost five months.
There were two confirmed COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma on March 11. On Thursday, 2,975 new cases were reported in Oklahoma, bringing the state’s cumulative total to 248,204, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. More than 2,100 Oklahomans have died from the virus.
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“We’re not gonna take for granted the opportunity to play, especially with what’s going on in the world,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “And so we’re certainly grateful.”
The Thunder planned for a reduced number of fans to be at the arena this season, but that decision was quickly reversed. The concourses were quiet Wednesday night and the concessions stands were closed.
The 18,000-seat building was empty save for the players, coaches and team personnel on the floor, and security guards, event staff and media at the top of the lower bowl and in the upper deck. Everyone but the players was required to wear a mask.
“It definitely is a bit different just because I’m so used to Chesapeake being filled up,” Bazley said, “but I guess I’m kind of used to it because of the bubble.”
Making the scene even stranger was Billy Donovan sitting on the opposing bench. Donovan was coaching the Thunder the last time Oklahoma City hosted a game, but he parted ways with the team in September and took the Bulls job.
“I enjoyed my five years here,” Donovan said. “The people here were wonderful. I built a lot of good, close relationships with a lot of people.
“So I don’t know if it was surreal,” Donovan said of being back. “It was certainly different. It makes you think back and reflect on your time there. There’s no question about that.”
After the Bulls lineup was announced, the Thunder’s public address announcer went through the same routine he would have had the arena been full.
“Please welcome back to Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan.”
Donovan had to settle for artificial applause.
Once the game started, the piped-in crowd noise was subtle, just enough to cut through the silence when the music stopped. The natural sounds of the game were amplified, like sneakers squeaking, coaches barking orders and teammates cheering from the benches.
“Even talking to the other team it’s like, man, this is really weird,” Thunder forward Isaiah Roby said.