Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas knows what it's like to play professional basketball in near-empty arenas. Months after helping the Sun make the Finals for the first time since 2005, she landed in Gorzow Wielkopolski, a city in western Poland, to play in the country's top league, Basket Liga Kobiet. The BLK shut down because of COVID-19 before its postseason began, but not before it switched to fan-free games.
"Things got pretty scary," Thomas told CBS Sports. "We were one of the first teams in our country to start playing with no fans. When that started happening it made everything pretty real. You know, this is affecting everyone, not just certain locations. We played two games with no fans, and then pretty quickly the travel ban was issued."
Thomas left Poland on March 13 and quarantined at home in Virginia, where she is still using her Peloton in her house, working out in her garage and getting shots up on the outdoor court in her neighborhood. Like everyone else in the WNBA, she is waiting to hear what comes next. While the NBA appears at Disney World, the immediate future of its sister league is murky.
Reports have indicated the WNBA could join the NBA in Orlando or set up a bubble of its own in Las Vegas. Thomas said that Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut -- where the Sun play their games -- is a potential third option. Regardless of time, place and format, no one expects there will be fans in the stands, at least in the short term. To get a sense of how that will impact the game, CBS Sports talked to players and coaches around the league.
"You feed off the crowd, and when they start getting into it, it helps you play better and gets in the other team's head," No. 3 overall pick Lauren Cox of the Indiana Fever said. "So it's definitely gonna be hard if it comes to that. But at the same time it's about our health and safety, and the fans' health and safety, so that has to be the No. 1 priority."
Another rookie, No. 10 pick Jocelyn Willoughby of the New York Liberty, said that she believes fans have a tangible impact on games, acting as the proverbial "sixth man" and elevating the home team. The players will compete when it is time to do so, but, she conceded that the game will feel different without the noise of the crowd.
"It's difficult," Thomas said. "You play the game because you love it, because of the essence of basketball. But a huge part of that, especially as a professional athlete, is that atmosphere. You know having your fans there, whether it's your fans or the opposing fans, it just brings an energy and a whole different environment that feeds into that adrenaline, feeds into that excitement to play the game."
This is a bizarre environment for pro sports, the likes of which we've rarely seen in basketball. The only points of comparison are the G League Showcase and summer league in Orlando, both of which were closed off to fans. But those scouting-oriented events still had coaches, executives and media sitting in seats and milling around near the court.
Though adjusting to a different kind of basketball experience isn't the most pressing pandemic-related problem, Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve expressed sympathy for fans who won't be able to show their support in person. "To not be able to sit and bring the energy that they do," Reeve said, will affect everyone involved in the WNBA.
"It's obviously hard to fathom," Reeve said. "Sometimes the joy of playing is the reaction you get. It fuels you, and that will be an adjustment for sure. But I also know that for a lot of competitive athletes, once the ball is tipped or hiked or kicked, you're competing. It doesn't matter if there's two or 2,000, or 20,000 [fans], but that will kick in. It will take some getting used to, 'cause it's simply not what you want. That will be one of the most disappointing times of this for sure, just 'cause of what your fan base brings you. But we're also in these unprecedented times."
In Gorzow Wielkopolski, Thomas and her teammates took it upon themselves to make up for what was missing.
"For us in Poland it was about being extra, extra, extra on the bench," Thomas said. "Every little play was just that much more exciting, every little detail that doesn't get that much attention during a normal situation is a much bigger deal for sure."
There were also unintended consequences of having no ambient noise in the arena.
"Our gym is very small and in Poland it's one of the gyms that gets the most amount of fans," Thomas said. "It just feels packed, so usually you can't hear anything the players or coaches are saying. So [the broadcast] actually had to mute the audio for our coach because he was into it and the [microphone] was just picking up his audio more than anything else, so we had to mute that."
Sun coach Curt Miller said it is difficult to speculate about the particulars of the in-arena experience, like whether or not the games will be soundtracked by music or nothing more than squeaking sneakers. He thinks that the NBA and WNBA will collaborate on best practices, but since "our leagues are totally different in size and scale," their respective returns won't necessarily be similar.
Miller has been surprisingly busy during his extended offseason. Every day he does hours of video calls, and on Thursdays the entire team participates in what he calls a Zoom huddle. "There's no playbook" for adapting to the absence of fans, he said, but he isn't the least bit concerned about the strange setting affecting how hard his team will play. Having watched "The Last Dance" recently, he pointed to the Chicago Bulls and Dream Team practice footage shown in the documentary, promising that players will find a way to conjure energy when they need it.
"Fans or no fans, when the ball's tipped up it's gonna be really competitive," Miller said.