On March 11, a day after James relented and said he would at least “listen” to a plan that included playing in front of empty arenas, the NBA suspended its season outright when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert became the league’s first player to test positive for the coronavirus. It is still unclear if, let alone when, the NBA might resume its 2019-20 season, and Commissioner Adam Silver would only say last week that he hoped to salvage “at least some portions” of it.
James was appearing Thursday on a podcast hosted by two of his former teammates with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye, as well as by Lakers studio host Allie Clifton, when the subject of possibly playing without fans came up. James referred to his earlier comments and said, “I still feel the same way.”
“I still think, like, having a game without fans is just — what is the word ‘sport’ without ‘fan’?” James continued. “There’s no excitement. There’s no crying. There’s no joy. There’s no back-and-forth.”
James said that having fans in the stands “brings out the competitive side of the players.” He added that was especially true in the “hostile environment” of road games, where “you’re playing against that opponent in front of you, but you really want to kick the fans’ ass, too.”
“So to get back on the floor, I would love it. … But, like, we can do that in scrimmages,” James said. “Let’s just go to each other’s practice facility, put out a camera, just scrimmage and live-stream it.”
That scenario might not be out of the question, as the NBA reportedly is considering a wide variety of options, including the possibility of staging an exhibition event for charity. James wondered if even that kind of competition could work, given the current circumstances.
“So what happens when a guy who is tested positive for corona, and you’re out there on the floor with him, and it’s a loose ball?” he asked during the podcast.
Two Lakers players, as yet unidentified, have tested positive for the coronavirus, and the NBA’s known total stands at 14 players across seven teams, including all-stars such as the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant and the Jazz’s Gobert, as well as Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell. The pandemic has touched the league in other ways, and Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns revealed Wednesday that his mother is in a medically induced coma because of the coronavirus.
Assuming the NBA is able to resume its season, James suggested a slate of five to 10 regular season games before embarking on the postseason, and that only after one and a half to two weeks of a “mini-training camp.”
“One thing you can’t just do is go straight to the playoffs,” he said. “Because it discredits the 60-plus games that guys had fighting for that position.”
As far as the suggestion that a veteran such as himself, a 35-year-old in his 17th NBA season, would benefit from the time off, James didn’t see it that way.
“It’s actually the opposite for me,” he said, “because my body when we stopped playing … was like, ‘Hey man, what the hell is going on? It’s March 13th, you’re getting ready for the playoffs, why are you shutting down right now?’ And I was right there turning the corner, like, I felt like I was rounding third base, getting ready for the postseason.
“So the rest factor, I think it’s a little bit overblown. Especially when you’re in the full swing of things.”
If and when the league is back in the swing of things, fans may see a change in how players dap each other up, at least as far as a certain four-time NBA MVP is concerned.
“I ain’t high-fiving nobody for the rest of my life after this [expletive],” James said lightheartedly. “No more high-fiving. After this corona [expletive]? Wait till you see me and my teammates’ handshakes after this [expletive].”
In contrast to some high-profile athletes who have posted messages telling people to stay indoors to slow the spread of covid-19, James asserted that he “would feel so weird” if he did that, because others could look at where he has arrived in life and think, “It’s easy for you to say.”
“I just go back to my childhood and how I grew up with me and my mom, that [expletive] would have been hell,” James said. “I feel like my mom would have been like, ‘I don’t give a [expletive] about corona. You better get your ass out of my house. Get the [expletive] out, you’re getting on my nerves.’”
“I don’t want to tell people, me being an advocate to stay home,” he added. “Just take care of yourself and understand that [you should] distance yourself from large, big groups of people. People that you don’t know, complete strangers, you know? Because now it’s spring, so everybody thinks [during] spring break, it’s time to get around with strangers. Like, this is not the time. This is not the time.”
On Wednesday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told CNBC that he believed “the NBA is going to try to come back as early as we can without spectators, just on TV and streaming, and just give people something to celebrate.”
Cuban clarified that he was only “guessing” about that, and said, “We have to be very cautious, particularly as we try to come back. I think at first, though, we’ll play a lot of games without fans and then figure it out as some of the available medicines … become available.”
If the season had not been interrupted, Thursday would have marked a visit by James’s Lakers to Cleveland. Having grown up in nearby Akron, Ohio, James played 11 seasons over two stints with the Cavs, and in 2016, with the help of Jefferson and Frye, he led the team to its first NBA title.
“It’s always special going back there and looking up there and look at that  banner,” James said. “Think about all the great memories that we had. And then being able to play in front of my friends and family again, that would have been so cool. … I’m kind of bummed out about that.”
At another point in the podcast, James and the hosts discussed the possibility that not even family members will be allowed to attend upcoming NBA games, at least not while seated anywhere near the court. However, it was the potential lack of fans — whether they be cheering or booing him — that seemed the most unsettling to league’s most prominent player.
“I just don’t know how we can imagine a sporting event without fans,” James said. “It’s a weird dynamic.”