76ers

Reflecting on the strangest day in NBA history

76ers

It didn’t feel like a normal game from the outset.

The Sixers had been taking precautions. During practice last Tuesday, media members were kept 6-8 feet away from players and coaches, as recommended by the NBA amid concerns of COVID-19. Hand sanitizer was at every turn.

Just a few hours before the Sixers and Pistons tipped off Wednesday, the NBA was already planning to play a game without fans the next night in San Francisco. That left everyone wondering what a game would be like at an empty arena.

Would TV crews still broadcast games? Will media still be able to cover it? What will the vibe in the arena be like?

Glenn Robinson III spoke pregame — outside the locker room, another precaution — and was asked a ton of questions about the idea of playing without fans.

He was asked if empty seats would throw off his depth perception while shooting, and how the players would deal with a quiet arena.

“I think how they play music when we're on defense, and offense they kind of play the instrumental in the background — maybe they turn that up a little bit,” Robinson said. “Maybe they got the fake fans that cheer in the background, so maybe we can do that. That'd be interesting for us to do, is act like there's more fans here.”

A reporter mentioned that fake fan noise wasn’t a bad idea.

“I’ll take that credit,” Robinson joked. It elicited laughs from the scrum — laughs we likely all needed.

 

Little did we know the night that was ahead.

Marc Zumoff has been the voice of the Sixers for over 25 years and covered the team for over a decade prior. Before that — and truly, first and foremost — he’d grown up a Philadelphia sports fan.

It’s safe to say the man they call “Zoo” has seen just about everything.

If you’re lucky enough to be courtside at the Wells Fargo Center before a game, you’ll often see Zumoff greeting the masses. He talks to players, coaches, fellow broadcasters, fans — “pregame for me is typically a schmooze fest,” Zumoff said.

Ahead of the Sixers’ game against the Pistons, it just wasn’t quite the same.

“Typically it's handshakes, hugs, what have you, and there was none of that,” Zumoff said. “There were even times where I would pass by go-to assistant coaches who have always been very good to me as it relates to helping me with the game, Xs and Os, strategy. And we were standing 8-10 feet from one another and making X's with our index fingers and laughing about it as if to say there's going to be no connection here and that's pretty much the way it went.”

After Zumoff records the opening to the broadcast with his partner, Alaa Abdelnaby, he’ll high-five and exchange pleasantries with fans on his way to his broadcasting perch. Unfortunately for Zumoff and those fans — many the long-time play-by-play announcer has interacted with for years — there would be no such exchanges.

And the night would only get stranger from there.

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Gratitude. That’s the first word that comes to mind after calling my first NBA game as color analyst on Thursday night. This journey has been nuts & I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I started calling games for @ucsbathletics basketball (keep swiping to see the last photo of 19-year-old Serena calling a game for the Big West Tourny, circa 2008 haha). After my first game, I was hooked, and knew that this was the journey I wanted to pursue. Fast forward to 2020, and I got the call up! So thankful to our entire broadcast crew who were my biggest advocates, and to NBC for giving me the opportunity. Man this has been & continues to be a beautiful grind & I’m so thankful to have such an amazing support system of family & friends throughout my life, who never doubted me, even when I chose to valet cars, with my college degree, just so that I could keep calling games for a semi-pro basketball team back in the day 🤣 (my day 1’s know that ugly uniform I was running around in!!! lol). And for my rock, that didn’t blink when we made 2 moves in 9 months so that I could pursue this career that I love so much. I’m using a lot of words to say, always be thankful for your people & appreciate YOUR journey. One thing I’ll always take away from Kobe is that the beauty, is really in the journey itself. Of course these milestones feel great in the moment, but it’s even more about the mini-milestones, the things that got you to where you are now. If you can always appreciate your journey & find beauty in the struggle, then you will always keep learning & you will always keep moving forward & for me, that’s what it’s all about. 💯

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Even when games aren’t broadcasted on NBC Sports Philadelphia, Serena Winters is with the Sixers. A West Coast trip where three out of the four games were on national TV? Winters was there for all four contests.

As the team’s sideline reporter for the past two seasons, Winters is a staple at Sixers home games and a face the fans associate with their favorite team. Fans will constantly come up and ask for pictures while she’s bouncing around the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center preparing for the game broadcast.

Typically, Winters won’t turn a single fan away. On this night, she was presented with a dilemma.

“I remember when I was walking around and fans were starting to come in,” Winters said. “A fan was like, ‘Hey, Serena, can you take a picture with my wife?' and my gut reaction was like, 'Shoot, should I not be doing this?' But I feel super bad saying no. These fans are here and I never say no when someone wants a photo. So I did take the photo and I usually put my arm around someone or get close to them … but I remember specifically being awkward — putting my hands down and making sure that they weren't touching that individual. And after that is kind of when I realized, 'Huh, what am I going to do throughout this game?'”

 

Winters had a security guard by her letting fans know that she was unable to oblige as she normally would. While it was easier for Winters than having to directly tell the fans “no,” it was difficult for her to see the security guard turning people away.

It was a strange reality for Winters to deal with, but not one that could prepare her for what was about to happen.

The Sixers beat a bad Pistons team on the rarest of occasions where the game on the floor felt secondary to what was happening off it.

As the media made its way to Brett Brown’s postgame conference, the reports came in that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus. Not long after, news came down that the NBA would be suspending its season.

A night that started with contemplating what games without fans would be like and navigating how to politely decline handshakes and hugs turned into something far different.

“It's like any other moment in your life that's similar to that,” Zumoff said. “Whether you hear shocking news about someone passing away or a tragedy that befalls someone — it’s almost that kind of reaction and that you're just trying to still yourself and say, 'OK, what does all this mean? What is my life going to be like? What's life gonna be like for my family and friends and fans and players?' You begin to realize in the space of about 30 seconds that your life is going to change drastically. 

“And not just the fact that this is what I do for a living, that it's been removed from my life almost in its entirety. It's my love of sports and how much a part of my life it is just as a fan. I'm a Union season ticket holder, I'm an Eagles season ticket holder. I've been a Phillies fan, a Flyers fan for my entire life. And there's nothing to turn to. And you turn to it not just as a distraction or entertainment, but because it's a piece of your being. And to have that removed certainly creates this huge vacuum. And while people say, 'Well, just read a book or watch a movie,' or something like that — sure, you can do that — but the sheer drama of sports and what it's meant for me and my bloodline, there's nothing else really to replace that.”

If you watch games regularly, Winters’ interviews with Brett Brown before the game and with a player on the court after the game are staples. If they didn’t happen, you might be a little confused.

Well, they happened last Wednesday, but you didn’t see Winters on screen. That’s because she was standing 6-8 feet from Brown and the star of that game, Joel Embiid. 

“First of all, having to stand 6-8 feet away was a wake-up call of, 'Okay, we're really doing this. There's something really happening here,'” Winters said. “Because in my career, and in my life, really, I've never experienced anything like that, where you have to be 6-8 feet away from a person. And obviously, in terms of how it enables you to do your job, your whole job changes. Everything. It's awkward. It's uncomfortable. You're just trying to do your job the best you can.”

 

Not long after she’d wrapped her interview up with Embiid, she checked her phone to see the news.

“I remember just sitting in those seats where we do press conferences — myself and one other reporter — and I just sat there for a while, because I just felt like I was in shock. Just is this really happening? And then when you see the news, that a player has it and then you know that the Sixers played Detroit — who four days prior had played in Utah — you do start to think about what are the next steps for us?”

***

In talking to Zumoff, he used the word “helpless” to describe his feelings, and there is likely no word that encapsulates the current situation better. We truly are helpless right now. Not just as people in sports media or fans, but as human beings. 

It’s hard to know when we’ll get back to watching the sport we love. Sure, you can go on YouTube and look up old highlights or binge a new Netflix series, but nothing can replace the feeling of watching live sports.

“I'm not sure I'm up to that yet as it relates to watching old games or classic games, that sort of thing,” Zumoff said. “I think I'm like everyone else, where I'm glued to the news and just hoping for a morsel of hopeful information that will indicate that as a civilization we're starting to get on top of this, because that's what has to happen first in order for us to resume the games.”

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