With fans back at Staples, playoff games will feel real again, Mychal Thompson says

LOS ANGELES — Once he settles into the broadcast booth, Mychal Thompson senses he will feel an adrenaline rush.

Thompson will watch the Los Angeles Lakers host the Phoenix Sun in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series on Thursday at Staples Center. He will commentate on the game as the Lakers’ longtime radio analyst for their flagship station. And he will attend the Lakers' first home playoff game with fans in eight years.

“It will feel like a real game. It won’t feel like a simulated game anymore,” Thompson told USA TODAY Sports. “Without the fans, it just doesn’t seem real. It feels like the games don’t count.”

Thompson wishes that was the case when the Lakers missed the playoffs for six consecutive years, the team’s worst stretch in franchise history. Consider Thompson last called a live playoff game when the Lakers lost to the San Antonio Spurs in a four-game sweep in 2013. Then, Dwight Howard earned an ejection for what became his last game before leaving for Houston in free agency while Kobe Bryant remained sidelined with an injured left Achilles tendon.

“I thought, ‘Boy that’s tough the Lakers lost in the first round, but we’ll be back next year,” Thompson said. “Because it’s the Lakers, you always expect they’ll be back in the playoffs competing for a title.”

The Lakers haven't played a playoff game in front of their fans since Tony Parker (right) and the Spurs swept them in the playoffs in 2013. (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Instead, the Lakers toiled in the NBA lottery while Bryant nursed two more season-ending injuries before his eventual retirement in 2016. The Lakers’ fortunes changed once they signed LeBron James as a free agent in 2018 and then acquired Anthony Davis from New Orleans a year later.

During the end of the 2019-20 season, Thompson relished calling the Lakers’ marquee regular-season games against the Milwaukee Bucks, LA Clippers and the Brooklyn Nets that he said attracted “a playoff atmosphere.” But the NBA suspended the season after learning Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11, 2020, the day after the Lakers-Nets game.

“Everybody was in shock. You couldn’t believe this was happening,” Thompson said. “How long was  it going to last?”’

The NBA resumed the season four months later in a campus bubble without any fans. Thompson called games remotely at the ESPN studios near LA Live. That is not what he envisioned how he would see the Lakers win their 17th NBA championship and first in 10 years.

“I was happy they were playing and resuming the season, but it just didn’t feel like you were calling a game,” Thompson said. “It just felt like you were watching a game at home and commenting on it. It’s not the same as being at the arena around the fans and around the players.”

Some of those restrictions still lingered this season. Instead of traveling for road games, Thompson still has worked games remotely at the ESPN studios. He attended the Lakers’ home games at Staples Center, but he has had no interactions with the team. While the Lakers played their first 27 home games without any fans, Thompson called games onsite in a broadcast booth protected with plexiglass.

“It’s like watching practice,” Thompson said. “They just felt like scrimmage games.”

The games felt relatively more important when the Lakers hosted 1,915 fans for their home game against the hated Boston Celtics on April 15. The arena gradually increased its capacity in subsequent games, and hosted around 7,000 fans for the Lakers’ play-in game last week against the Golden State Warriors.

Though fans are still required to wear masks, fans that have vaccination proof can sit in sections that don’t require social-distancing rules.  Thompson would like to take pictures with fans as he did during his 14-year NBA career and his 18-year Lakers broadcaster career. But once the vaccine became widely available in LA last month, Thompson at least has spoken with fans before his broadcast while wearing a mask and following social-distancing customs.

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“The good thing about it is no one is shaking hands anymore,” Thompson said. “I always used to get three colds a season because I shook so many hands. But since I haven’t shaken any hands for a year and a half, I haven’t had any cold. So hopefully the tradition of hand shaking is gone. Let’s just do the greeting with a head nod or a bow.”

Hence, the Lakers’ games have not completely returned to normalcy. For Thompson, at least the on-court product has.

He predicted the Lakers will defend their NBA championship by beating the Brooklyn Nets in seven games amid optimism that James and Davis will stay healthy and that the team’s chemistry will improve. Still, Thompson cautioned the Suns could threaten the Lakers if Phoenix guard Chris Paul still plays while nursing an injured right shoulder. 

Amid those uncertainties, Thompson remains mindful the Lakers stole home-court advantage from Phoenix and will soon hear what a home playoff crowd sounds like.

“That’s half the fun of being around the NBA — it’s to say hello to fans and talk basketball with them,” Thompson said. “Without them, there is no business. There are no games. They’re as important as anything.”

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