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Opinion: This is the weekend that brought sports back to normal. It was glorious to watch

·4 min read
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When the game-winning floater went in for Trae Young on Sunday with 0.9 seconds left to give the Atlanta Hawks a 1-0 series lead over the New York Knicks, he put his finger to his lips to silence a Madison Square Garden crowd that had been cursing him all night.

But the most important part of that moment wasn’t Young’s first big NBA playoff moment or becoming New York’s latest villain. It was much simpler than that: For the first time in a long time, there was actually somebody to shush.

Between the raucous scene at the Garden on Sunday, the massive galleries following Phil Mickelson at the PGA Championship, playoff hockey in Nashville being played to 71 percent capacity and mostly full baseball stadiums all over the country, this weekend felt like the moment sports truly came back.

And it was glorious to watch.

Fan, including Tracy Morgan and John Stewart (both front center), rise to their feet during the final moments of the NBA playoff game between the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks.
Fan, including Tracy Morgan and John Stewart (both front center), rise to their feet during the final moments of the NBA playoff game between the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sports have progressed in stages from total shutdown, to playing in a bubble, to allowing in a small percentage of fans as long as they were socially distanced.

This, of course, was done with the health and safety of everyone in mind. But it also couldn’t go on forever.

High-definition televisions are great, but there’s nothing that can replace sitting in the stands for a big game and feeling the energy of a crowd. It’s better to have sports than not to have them, but let’s be honest — it just wasn’t the same without people there to watch.

“I’m glad fans are back,” Young said, even though they frequently chanted his name with an expletive in front of it. “I’m glad MSG was rocking tonight.”

It would be inaccurate to say that sports are entirely back to pre-pandemic times. The attendance restrictions still vary by market, but 10 of the 16 NBA playoff teams will have at least 10,000 fans and those numbers could very well go up in the coming weeks if the COVID-19 case numbers continue to fall.

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But it does finally feel like the light switch has been turned back on — not because COVID-19 isn’t real or isn’t a threat or was never a danger to spread through crowds. It’s because, finally, the country is making real progress in getting the coronavirus under control.

For as much as this pandemic has been politicized, that was always the bargain: If we want to get back to normal — if we want sports to get back to normal — we needed to fix the problem.

Thanks to the wide distribution of vaccines, it’s finally working.

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According to the CDC’s Monday update, 49.8 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated, with 61.5 percent having received at least one dose. Meanwhile, the seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases dipped to 22,877, the lowest in more than 11 months.

We’re already seeing in many of these NBA and NHL crowds that there are sections for vaccinated people, where there’s no social distancing, and non-vaccinated people where there are still some restrictions. That is probably going to be the norm for a little while longer.

Regardless, the atmosphere at these games even with 70 percent capacity looks jarringly awesome. Having covered several NCAA men’s basketball tournament games with very limited capacity, I can attest that having a live person in a seat makes for a far better experience than a cardboard cutout and piped-in noise.

How back to normal are we? When fans flooded the 18th fairway at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island to swarm Phil Mickelson as he approached his final few shots of the PGA Championship, my first instinct wasn’t about superspreaders. It just looked cool, even though it was almost certainly overboard and perhaps unwelcome from the players’ perspective.

“Slightly unnerving, but exceptionally awesome,” Mickelson said.

Still, if we’ve learned anything from the last 14 months, it's that removing fans from the equation changes the nature of the competition. Whether it was a golf major or tennis tournament or NBA game or the College Football Playoffs, there isn’t a single event that was made better by removing fans.

Had Young beaten the Knicks with the same shot Sunday night under the same on-court circumstances, it would have been a great moment for him and fans of the Atlanta Hawks. But without the deafening noise that crowd made all night and the deflation of those fans when Young delivered his gut-punch, the moment wouldn’t have been as rich.

With that shot in front of that crowd to cap an awesome weekend, a sense of normalcy has truly returned to sports. Let’s hope having someone to shush is back for good.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sports feel normal again as fans return to live cheering after COVID