What would have made a championship sweeter, LeBron James said many times this fall, would have been to be at Staples Center, surrounded by the raucous embrace of Lakers fans.
At the start of next season, he’ll only get half of that wish.
The Lakers and Clippers will be back home for the 2020-21 season, but there will be no fans at Staples Center in accordance with state and local health guidelines as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. While it doesn’t come as a surprise in California, which has been slow to lift restrictions on gatherings as new cases have risen again in the last month, it’s a continuing struggle to return to normal for professional sports in the region.
The Lakers officially announced that they would begin the season without fans “until further notice” on Wednesday afternoon, a day after the NBA officially confirmed that it will tip off a reduced 72-game regular-season slate on Dec. 22. A Clippers spokesman confirmed that they would also begin the season without fans.
Staples Center has largely been shuttered for events since its sports seasons went on hiatus: The last NBA game between the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets was played on March 10.
Historically, the defending champion plays at home on the first night of the season, which is accompanied by a championship banner and ring presentation. It’s unclear how, if at all, playing without fans affects the Lakers’ plans for opening night, but like plans for a championship parade, the team expressed that some of the pomp of the franchise’s 17th NBA title will be deferred.
“We appreciate your continued support and look forward to coming together, when it is safe to do so, to celebrate the raising of our banner and the quest for another NBA championship,” the Lakers said in a team statement.
Both teams will be looking for opportunities to re-open the building to fans as the season progresses, depending on developments such as regional case count, state and local guidelines and the availability of widespread rapid testing and potential vaccines.
While the NBA will likely follow health and cleaning guidelines recommended by experts and drawing from the experiences of the bubble at Disney World this past season, Staples Center is anticipating having its own guidelines in place, including improved air filtration in the building and new safety protocols for employees –such as security and technical personnel – who will still be required to stage games.
The Athletic reported the NBA sent a memo to its teams in other markets that might allow fans in December: Attendees will be required to have a negative coronavirus test two days in advance of games, or return a negative rapid test result the day of the game. Fans will have to wear masks, and teams might install plexiglass barriers between the team benches and the audience. Arena capacity, which will not be more than 50 percent anywhere, will be determined by regional case counts and testing percentages.
Staff writer Mirjam Swanson contributed to this story.