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What it’s like to announce an NBA game to an empty arena

How do you hype up a crowd when there’s no crowd?

The Denver Nuggets play the Utah Jazz in an empty stadium.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Nikola Jokic, center for the Denver Nuggets, might win the NBA MVP this year. On January 31, he tied a career high with 47 points against the Utah Jazz on his home court, which was an exceptional feat accomplished in near-total silence.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced most sports leagues to operate with extremely limited fan presences for the foreseeable future, and in Colorado, no civilians are permitted to any sports arenas. That has given the games an eerie vibe. If you watch this highlights compilation, the only voice you can hear, save for the TV broadcasters, is that of Kyle Speller, the Nuggets’ public address announcer of 16 years.

Speller hasn’t called a conventional game of basketball in almost a full calendar year. The last normal game he attended was on March 9, 2020, just two days before commissioner Adam Silver suspended the basketball season. Last summer, Speller took a trip down to Orlando, Florida, to serve as part of the surreal NBA bubble, and since the start of the 2020-2021 season in December, he treks to the Ball Arena in downtown Denver for the Nuggets’ home games. The traditional duties of a PA — announcing the roster, handing out giveaways, and introducing the halftime acts — have all been thrown into flux. With no fans in the building, there is technically no reason to boom over the microphones after Jokic dumps in a three. Instead, Speller is here to provide a sense of normalcy to the TV viewer; a brief escape into a world that isn’t in the middle of the worst public health crisis in living memory.

Speller, like many PA announcers, has a day job. He provides voice talent to other ventures, and works as an onboarding specialist at Comcast. Like the rest of us, he’s been making his way through the plodding, gray nothingness of this pandemic, and from talking to him, it’s clear that live basketball has been a respite — like any sports fan, he’s relying on the nightly slate of games to break up the interminable doldrums. We talked about that, as well as his anxieties heading into the bubble, and how, in the absence of a rowdy crowd, energetic announcing is the best way to motivate the home team out of a timeout.

What do you remember about getting invited to go to the NBA bubble?

When they first started talking about the bubble, I was concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to call the rest of the season. I was like, “Will they bring any announcers down there? How will this work?” As I learned more details, I resigned to the idea that I probably wouldn’t be calling any more games. But then they announced that teams could bring down some individuals, and I wondered if I’d get the call. I didn’t reach out to the Nuggets, I just kinda waited around to hear. Then one day, they contacted me and said, “Hey, the NBA wants you in the bubble, is that something you could do?”

I talked about it with my wife. As long as she was on board, I was on board. I got approval from my day job, because at my company, we’ve all been working from home. So I figured I could work from everywhere.

So you were working from your hotel room in between your time calling the games?

Absolutely. A lot of people were in the bubble because their job demanded it. But I was working full time down there as well.

Were you nervous about going down there?

It was like, “Okay, what’s it going to be like in the bubble? Am I going to be safe?” We had to quarantine for seven days, and I didn’t know what that was going to be like. But I was quarantining at home, so switching to a hotel room felt kinda normal. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. One of my biggest concerns was flying down there and going through the airport. There were a few Denver TSA employees who had come down with Covid, and I knew Orlando was a hot spot at the time. So landing in that airport was also kind of concerning. I had my N95 mask, I didn’t touch anything, and didn’t eat anything, I just got through it.

The NBA has done a lot of work to create a sense of normalcy during both the bubble and this current season. A big part of that is having a PA announcer making the calls, even if there isn’t a crowd around. Is that important to you? Do you believe that you’re responsible for creating that normalcy?

My mentality has shifted from trying to encourage the crowd to just trying to encourage my team. You realize the crowd isn’t there, but the people pumping in the fake crowd noise have gotten really good at it. For me, it’s like they feed off my reactions and what’s going on in the game, and if you close your eyes, when everything is in sync, it feels like there’s a crowd in the building. Once the ball goes up, it’s just basketball.

Was there an adjustment period for you? Was it awkward at all at first announcing for no people? Or did you find it pretty seamless?

For me, it wasn’t. Going into the bubble, I felt like my purpose was to remain professional at all times and really support whatever team I’m calling for. It was just part of the job for me. I don’t think about the lack of a crowd. We’re playing, and let’s try to get a victory.

I was watching a Cavaliers game a couple days ago, and after coming back from commercial, their PA guy said something like, “Everyone wins free curly fries from Arby’s!” as part of a giveaway — even though there were maybe a couple thousand people in the stands. Are you still doing stuff like that? How much have you cut out from your announcing schedule?

We’ve cut out anything like that. It’s funny, there are certain things we’d do with our crowd where I’m like, “Well, can’t do that now.” One tradition we have is that nobody sits down until we score our first bucket. I feel that in my brain, but I’m not actually saying it. We’ve done free Chick-fil-A nuggets in the fourth quarter if the other team misses two free throws, and I yell out, “Free chicken!” And those moments are definitely not there. We had our mascot Rocky hit his world-famous backward basketball shot, and that was sponsored, so we’re not doing that as well. We miss that stuff, we look forward to having them again.

Also, I have a lot of calls that are crowd-specific. If our guy hits a three-pointer, I’ll say, “So-and-so for one, two,” and the crowd shouts “three.” But we went and recorded a crowd yelling “three,” so we can still do that. If there’s a traveling violation, I’ll say, “Whose ball?” And we have a recording of “Nuggets’ ball!”

Speller announcing with a crowd of fans behind him, in 2012.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

One of the narratives during this NBA season is that we’ve had a lot of blowouts. One of the theories behind that is that, without a home crowd, players can’t latch onto that energy when they’re down 10 to go on a run. Have you felt that at all in your games? Have you been able to fill that void?

I think on occasion it has happened with our squad. I’m just an announcer, so who knows, but there’s been a couple games where we picked up our intensity, and so did they. There was one time where our guys were down, and I was frustrated by their performance, and I wasn’t feeling like doing anything at that moment. My boss was like, “You know what, let’s give it a shot.” So he picked up his energy, and the next thing we knew, the momentum shifted and we won that game. This is my 16th season, and there’s been numerous times where I’ve been a part of that. But there’s also been times where we tried to pick up our intensity and it worked for a minute, but we still wound up taking an L. But I do think we’re making a difference.

We’re coming up on a year since the last time you had a home court full of fans. How much do you miss it?

I can’t wait for them to come back. It’s just not the same. We’re holding it down until they can come back. And when they do? Oh, man, it’s gonna be awesome. There are certain fans that are season ticket members, and you get used to knowing where they are every game. We’re a big family. I miss those folks.

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