“The observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.”
– the Observer Effect Theory
Sorry, that song actually has nothing to do with anything. It just pops into my head every time I hear the word “phenomenon”.
But let’s track back to Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Einstein, and a feline or two. In Particle Physics, the Observer Effect plays into things you’ve heard of, like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the Theory of Relativity, and most especially Schrödinger’s cat.
The upshot of it all is that the act of observing, looking at, or checking upon something actually affects that something. There are very practical real-life applications to this idea. Observing the amount of air in your tires? It lets a bit of air out of your tires. Observing your diet? Well, that usually means sticking to a better diet. Unless you’re me.
The idea is not completely foreign to the world of sports, either. An athlete under the microscope of a hyperattentive coach, roaring crowd, or mass media definitely knows the pressures of staying as loose and focused in tough moments as they do in an empty gym. Sports psychologists make big bucks helping the best performers find that clarity and headspace to perform at their calmest peak. Jamal Murray’s father spent untold hours and years giving him tools to find his zen at exactly those utmost pressure-packed moments. When everyone is watching, it changes how you do it.
That effect may be at least a small part of why the NBA and other leagues are seeing the impacts, both positive and negative, of having to pull the home crowds from their live contests. Purists will scream that their sports are tainted without the crowds in place, and the simple reality is that the leagues would never miss out on the revenue that fan ticket sales bring, unless forced by something crazy like a global pandemic. That said, here are a few words in defense of the positive outcomes of basketball in a bubble.
Pop-a-shot. Shooting percentages have been up across the board in the bubble, with many players talking about the lack of sound, a homogenous background/field of vision, and a lack of sideline bodies all positively impacting their ability to shoot the ball. While it’s been strange to not see the swell and roar of hometown crowds, the lack of an audience is resulting in a purer shooting performance all around, and that has made for some very exciting and compelling basketball. And though the multi-face virtual crowds are definitely a Phase 1-type of execution, they’ve still brought some fun and funny moments to the proceedings.
Commuting. The pressures of playoff basketball don’t stop at the door of the arena. Players typically travel 2-4 times for each playoff series, and can see some pretty deleterious effects because of it. Late night flights, jet lag, time zone changes, and crowded accommodations can all make for a pretty tough “hangover” for elite athletes to overcome, even with the spread schedule the playoffs provide. Being within walking distance of “home” throughout the time they play has also reportedly been a real boon to the athletes.
Camraderie. The phalanx of players and teams has made for some unique opportunities that players rarely get, at least at this sort of scale. Reports of outings of players with all sorts of common threads has emerged from the bubble. A good example for Nuggets fans would be Nikola Jokic, Boban Marjanovich, Goran Dragic, and others having an opportunity to spend time and relax with others from your home country or closeby, without the pressures of fans approaching every five minutes or only being able to see players from the team you’re opposing.
Kindness. Admit it. You’ve seen it. At least in the NBA playoffs, players are going at each other hard, and still jawing away in tense or heated moments. But the fact that they are sharing spaces closely and at length is having an effect on their in-game responses. The Nuggets were right next to the Utah Jazz during their playoff series, even sharing a mail room. The Clippers see a fair bit of the Nuggets as well day-to-day. That atmosphere, and the lack of a hyperattenuated fan base roaring for blood nightly might have something to do with the smiles and conversations you see opposing players share in between the heated moments, or the suddenly very common sight of players from both sides helping each other off the floor. It’s a small step, and one that the ultra-competitive amongst us might actually frown upon. But it’s a good look and good PR for the league in a moment that the world has much more serious matters to be worrying over than bad blood between NBA organizations. This happily and squarely places the focus on the social justice matters the league is elevating instead.
So… is it reality? Maybe. It’s about as real as anything can get in this strange new era of sports. Is it normal? Again, normal may never be whatever normal was before when all of the dust settles. Is it as good as it was before? Yes. No. Maybe? It’s different, that’s for sure. There are aspects of this Petri dish that are locked down… simply to not become an actual Petri dish. There are moments that are missed or not as rich without home crowds, court advantages, and rivalries turned all the way up to 11. But there are also moments of purity and clarity emerging from these contests that have made for some very compelling games, some very thrilling endings, some very satisfied fans, and some very happy players. The NBA, for one, could have done far worse in its results, and hopefully will be able to emulate some of these unexpectedly positive outcomes once we get back to whatever that new normal may be.
Enjoy the weekend, DNVR Nation. Life may not be the same inside their bubble or yours, but there’s still some beauty in there, and I hope you are finding it.