“The one thing that’s constant is things will not be constant.”
Those are the words of Toronto Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet, spoken earlier this season when the Raptors and the city of Toronto simultaneously began to feel the effects of the COVID-19 Omicron variant. VanVleet might not have been able to predict that the Raptors would be forced to play home games in an empty Scotiabank Arena arena just a couple weeks later—when provincial restrictions limited indoor gatherings to just 1,000 people for at least three weeks—but like the rest of the Raptors, VanVleet has gotten used to change.
After all, the Raptors have been in a constant state of flux since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in March of 2020. They went from playing in Toronto in front of sold out crowds of 20,000 to playing in the NBA’s fanless bubble near Orlando, Florida that same season to playing in Tampa Bay in front of half-empty arenas with fans often cheering for the “away” team in 2020-21 to being back home to start this season in front of sold-out crowds once again.
But if the start of this season represented a full-circle moment for the Raptors, I’m not quite sure what to make of this: an NBA game being played in front of 20,000 empty seats aside from Masai Ujiri and the Raptors front office situated on one end of the 100s and about 40 of the players’ friends and families seated on the opposite end. And neither do the players, it seems, because as creatures of habit, their routines have been thrown off.
During warmups, forward Pascal Siakam runs halfway up the stands with a basketball in hand before throwing a football-style pass to VanVleet at halfcourt. Touchdown! Meanwhile, rookie Scottie Barnes is sizing up the Raptors mascot, preparing to take him one-on-one, crossing him over before settling for a step-back three.
Once the game starts, the sounds of sneakers screeching, basketballs bouncing, and Pascal Siakam yelling stand out above a faint track being played by game ops of fans clapping and cheering and chanting “defence!” and “let’s go Raptors!” The only time the arena is dead silent is when the Raptors shoot free throws, at which point you can hear every word being said on the court, almost to an uncomfortable degree. It’s intimate yet inorganic; silly yet sad.
To attend a Raptors home game in January of 2022 is to get slapped in the face by reality: like the city outside the walls of Scotiabank Arena, everything is lifeless. The energy has been sucked from the building, and what remains is a disorienting and eerie atmosphere full of dim lights, closed concession stands, and dreary security guards wandering an empty concourse. In fact, the only thing that feels normal about the experience are the Drake songs blasting during timeouts.
“It’s not great…. It’s a big old building to not have very much energy in and juice in there when the game’s going on with the greatest players in the world, it’s not great,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said about playing in an empty Scotiabank Arena. “As we all know, this is tough. It’s particularly tough out there sports-wise, for sure. Let’s hope it gets better quickly and we get our fans back. Our fans are awesome. We want to play in front of them.”
That’s not to say the product on the court has suffered. In fact, the Raptors are 3-0 playing in front of empty stands, with wins over the Clippers, Knicks, and Spurs. They’re 8-2 in their last 10 home games after starting the season 2-8 at home, and finally reached above .500 on the season for the first time since early November. The Raptors are playing their best basketball of the season, finally healthy and whole. And despite being the only team in the league to not have home fans, being the odd man out is par for the course for the only team north of the border.
“It was more normal than not, to be honest with you. I didn’t even think about it until we were just talking about it in the locker room. So, I don’t know the numbers but I would say we probably played just as much if not more fanless basketball than we have in front of packed stadiums, so it is what it is,” VanVleet said after their first fanless game on December 31st. “I’m not gonna make so many excuses or, you know, dwell on the challenges and adversity that we’re facing. But, you know, we’ll try to get as many wins as we can in this building. Fans or no fans, we got to go out there and play basketball and do the best we can.”
Of course, just because it has become normal for some of the Raptors veterans doesn’t mean it’s easy to play in an empty arena. There are challenges that no other NBA team has to face, including the necessity to bring their own energy to the game instead of relying on the fans to provide a boost, especially at the start; the need for the bench to cheer on whoever is on the court since the fans can’t; the need for the coaches to keep everybody focused when everything is so abnormal and everyone’s routine has been thrown off, especially for young players who have never played in an environment like this.
“We’ve got a lot of practice in a lot of [different] situations,” Nurse says about the fanless arena. “You’ve gotta really focus in on yourselves and finishing the job and getting something out of the work you’ve put in, and still understand we’re here to do a job, be professional, and get a result.”
“I think there’s still a lot at stake. It always seems to be much more fun with fans in the gyms. But you can’t let that be much of a factor. You just can’t do it.”
Fortunately, the Raptors have done a great job staying energetic and focused despite the circumstances. The veterans in the starting lineup are getting off to good, controlled starts, and the young guys coming off the bench are providing a much-needed boost of energy to the games.
“It’s not that hard for me. My whole aura is built off energy, me as a person, I’m just energy, so it kinda just comes out in the game. I know how to step it up and just bring it,” undrafted two-way forward Justin Champagnie says of playing in front of no fans. “It’s harder trying to bring it for the whole team, that’s a lot of energy you gotta exert. But I feel like it starts with one person and just all spreads over and I feel like we’ve been doing a great job with that.”
Still, there are certain challenges that will be hard to overcome as the Raptors continue to play home games without fans for at least the next two weeks; things that are impossible to replicate such as the boost you get from a 20,000 people cheering you on when you’re down, or going crazy after a big dunk, or even from the distracting noise they make when an opposing player shoots free throws.
For now, however, the Raptors are not worried about things they cannot control. After getting healthy for the first time all season and winning their last four games, propelling them to the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference, why should they?
“Right now, it’s no challenge at all,” VanVleet says with a smirk. “Any time you are dealing with something where it’s one out of 30 teams and no other team is dealing with it, it just is what it is. But so far, so good. And we’ll welcome the fans back when they’re allowed to.”