On neutral courts, NBA bubble ‘home’ teams still have an edge

By Scott Cacciola

Johnny Watson keeps an eye on the scoreboard clock whenever the Miami Heat are the home team — on paper, at least.

Nothing is normal inside the NBA’s bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., but the Heat can count on Watson for one familiarity: the sound of Michael Baiamonte, the team’s longtime public-address announcer, shouting, “Dos! Minutos!” whenever two minutes remain in a quarter.

Watson cues up the audio recording of Baiamonte in his role as the primary game presentation director at AdventHealth Arena, one of the two gyms that the NBA will use for its playoff games, which started Monday.

“Everything about this experience is surreal,” Watson, 41, said in a telephone interview. “But the players and coaches seem to appreciate all the little touches at the venue.”

The 16 teams competing in the NBA playoffs spent the season jockeying for position in standings that determine who has home-court advantage. But the NBA bubble is a mostly depersonalized environment for athletic competition. If it were any more neutral, it would be in reverse. Even the Orlando Magic, who could Uber home, have been living out of suitcases ahead of their first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. That matchup, like all the rest, will be staged without fans, aside from the virtual ones that populate the wraparound video boards inside the arenas.

But in striving to manufacture a home-court edge where none exists, the league — and people like Watson — have assembled a database of music, audio cues and graphics that teams would ordinarily be using in their own arenas. The idea, Watson said, is to create a sense of home, away from home.

“As we get deeper into the playoffs, there will be more dramatic effects,” Watson said. “I think the spectacle will grow.”

Even now, there are moments that transport teams like the Bucks back to their home arenas. From his spot at the plexiglass scorer’s table, Watson relays cues to his crew — he works with a public-address announcer, a music coordinator and a screens producer — to play the Notorious B.I.G.’s eponymous classic when Giannis Antetokounmpo soars for a dunk, or to flash Khris Middleton’s name in flames on the arena’s big screens when he drills a 3-pointer.

The Philadelphia 76ers christen their wins by walking off the court to “Here Come Their Sixers,” their longtime anthem. And the Heat have something called the “ViceWave,” which turns the arena into a neon tapestry.

The vibe is similarly resourceful about 100 miles away, inside the WNBA’s bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where exaggerated growls are piped through the speakers whenever the Minnesota Lynx have a home game and Matt Pitman modulates his tone to fit the conditions as one of the PA announcers.

“When a player from the home team scores a basket, I’m announcing it like there’s an arena full of people: ‘Dianaaaa Tauraasiiiii!’” Pitman said, referring to the Phoenix Mercury’s superstar shooting guard. “Just blowing it up. When I did it for the first time, I was wondering if it would sound normal. Like, I’m screaming my brains out in an empty gym. But it fits. It’s comfortable. It doesn’t feel forced, which is good.”

Before the Golden State Warriors hired him to do their public-address announcing last year, Pitman spent 14 seasons in that role with the Seattle Storm. In the bubble, the Storm opened their season with a “road” game against the Liberty, and Pitman handled it like a consummate professional, which meant he expressed way more enthusiasm for the home team.

“I got a little bit of a hard time from some of the Storm folks as they were leaving,” Pitman said. “They were like, ‘Hey, it sounded like you were teasing Breanna Stewart on that offensive foul call!’ But that’s just how you have to do it, and they definitely understand. But it does feel strange.”

Watson can relate. He is on loan to the NBA from the Bucks, who employ him as their executive producer of arena and event presentation. In Milwaukee, Watson is in charge of “the entire fan experience,” he said, which includes managing the audio, the lighting, the special effects, the video boards and the entertainment.

Now, of course, there are no fans. In their absence, Watson and the other game presentation crews are building atmosphere for the players — and for fans watching from their couches.

“He’s one of those guys that loves a challenge,” Peter Feigin, the president of the Bucks, said in a telephone interview. “He’s the calm in the storm.”

Feigin said he sent several other members of his organization to the bubble to assist the league in various capacities.

“For us, it’s a huge advantage because Orlando is sort of a pilot program for so many things,” Feigin said. “Even on facilities management, on sanitation, on testing — all this stuff that might not sound glamorous but will be so useful to understand as we move forward as a league.”

Watson said he began working with the NBA in late March when he was invited to join a committee that met, virtually, three times a week to discuss the league’s plans for a potential restart and how it would both look and sound. Over the coming weeks, as the restart came into sharper focus, all 22 bubble-bound teams sent video graphics they use during games, along with music playlists and instructions that covered nearly everything: player introductions, in-game chants, lighting effects.

Watson arrived at Disney on July 11, then quarantined in his hotel room for a week as he prepared for the long haul. His wife, Katelin, who is home with their two children — Jack, 4, and Emmy, 2 — is very understanding, he said.

“Being away from them for three months is tough,” Watson said.

But it is a unique opportunity, he said, and he was honored that the league asked him to help. He compared it to summer league, except with the best players in the world.

“You can hear everything they’re saying,” he said. “It’s just so crazy and interesting.”

The relative silence is most apparent to Watson during timeouts. Normally, he said, timeouts brim with activity: on-court contests for fans, sponsor promotions out on the concourse, quick-hitter musical acts. Bango, the Bucks’ mascot, often hurtles across the court in Milwaukee on a Harley-Davidson at critical late-game junctures.

But in the bubble, the games go to commercial break — and there are no fans in the building to entertain. Watson will have his crew’s music coordinator, Courtney Benjamin, who goes by DJ M.I.L., play some tunes to fill the void. But the emptiness is striking: Where are the T-shirt guns? Where are all the familiar faces?

“But I understand what this is,” Watson said. “And it is historic. But hopefully it’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal that we never have to experience again.”

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