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Inside Celtics games in an empty TD Garden

Fans will return to Celtics games on Mar. 29, ending the strangest experience in the history of TD Garden. Here’s what it was like to attend C’s games without a crowd.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

As Jayson Tatum tumbled into what should have been one of the loudest celebrations for the Celtics in TD Garden this season, his game-winning scoop layup past Bradley Beal only drew the immediate embrace of Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis. They lifted him to his feet, the bench screamed briefly, and Tatum’s mellow expression barely shifted.

Without the roar of 20,000 fans, a great moment like that will fade as quickly as it did that night. The arena fell empty and silent minutes after the basket. No one can say, “I was there for that,” and the buzz from that spectacular play will prove fleeting.

This has been the NBA in 2020-21.

The league did its best to approximate the TV experience near what it was previously. Between the vacant seats peeking from the top of the camera shot and the hollowness of the fake crowd noise, the attempt felt false. An empty NBA arena is another reminder that this last year has been far from normal.

Tatum’s opening night game-winner over Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jaylen Brown explosive scoring performances, Tacko Fall’s end-to-end block-and-dunk against Washington and Payton Pritchard’s early-career heroics have been dulled without fans. Kevin Garnett’s planned jersey retirement is indefinitely postponed. Romeo Langford, injured all year, wore gloves without the warming of thousands of bodies around him.

That will end mercifully and hopefully safely on Mar. 29 for Pelicans-Celtics, when the C’s invite fans a week after the Bruins welcome a limited number of ticketholders. It will be a welcome sight for the team’s fans, an unfamiliar one for even the most faithful.

Visitors to Causeway Street will notice the towers swallowing the street-facing Garden entrance side. Construction fills the surrounding area for now, otherwise vacant aside from a few commuters at 5:30 on a game night, unthinkable to people frequenting North Station just over 365 days ago.

A trio of police circle in conversation to the right upon entering the station. Less than 10 people sit in the waiting area to travel to Salem, Lynn and Newburyport on the far side of the room past aging images of Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and various Bruins on the pillars. The pro shop is empty, as are the lobbies to the left and right that’d normally be filled entirely out each door with people awaiting the opening of the gates.

The train station’s entrances on each side of the building are still open. A gaping central entrance between storefronts is new, with escalators and Garden-branding welcoming only a few dozens reporters, staffers, and commuter rail travelers.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

TD Garden will welcome 2,300 fans upon reopening. That’s 12% of capacity, a significant increase from zero.

The New York Knicks previewed that leap in attendance by welcoming 2,000 into Madison Square Garden on Feb. 23. While Celtics fans would’ve booed this year’s team at certain home games this season, a 19-18 start signaled hope to a defeated New York fanbase. Julius Randle, announced an All-Star pregame, dropped 25 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in a national TV showcase against the Warriors.

The 10% capacity attendees shouted MVP chants, “de-fense!” and entered a frenzy after an Obi Toppin three pulled the Knicks from down double-digits all night to within three late before losing.

After back-to-back wins that followed, and a return to .500 for the Knicks, celebration ensued outside.

In Boston, the absence of that kind of crowd is evident from the ninth floor of TD Garden. From those nosebleeds, the action appears small, but the arena is in full view and the noise from below fills the building like a concert hall. Tacko Fall’s extended debut against the Pistons in 2019 comes to mind as a moment where energy exploded up the walls to where I sat overhead.

Now, in this more intimate setting, you hear some of what’s said on the floor and in the bench areas rather than the deafening roar of the crowd.

“Are you kidding me?,” Jaylen Brown barked after getting caught on one of Trae Young’s lean-in moves to draw a foul during Atlanta’s 122-114 win on Feb. 17.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Danny Ainge and Mike Zarren sat courtside for that game against the hockey walls roughly ten feet from the court. The outline of the Bruins’ ice as open space around the Celtics floor isolates a scene that normally sits fans, giving Beal room to pump his chest toward viewers at home after reaching 46 points. Camera operators and benches, normally inches from the players on the floor, aren’t below the basket where Beal burst through after his layup.

Across from them, other Celtics staffers sit on folding chairs six feet apart. Behind them, nearly two dozens others applaud, call out rotations and occasionally berate the referees to try to emulate 19,600. Ainge pointed Zarren toward a Brown-to-Tatum alley-oop, and peeked at his phone throughout. His presence is not a constant along the sideline.

Tommy Heinsohn alone probably would’ve made a louder statement than all of that. Brian Scalabrine, Mike Gorman, Sean Grande and Cedric Maxwell sat behind long tables set up in that same loge area, separated individually by glass to call the games. They returned to their normal locations shortly before the break.

There are the little things, too. My night for the Atlanta game started with swallowing a Kelly’s chicken sandwich in two bites outside the security gate; food wasn’t permitted. Concessions will be available, with masks mandatory unless eating or drinking. Seats will be sold in separated groups.

The inside of the Garden has been renovated within the past few years, with a darker theme throughout the hallways matching black seats. It’s uncertain if fans will be courtside or even on the floor like they have in some arenas like Atlanta. Employees have been retrofitted with wearable devices for contact tracing. No tracking system is in place for fans or media, though the Garden hopes initiatives like pre-ordering concessions and designated entrances and exits will help maintain social distancing.

At the end of the night, the streets around the North End were deserted at midnight. Only two people stand by the parking garage on Causeway, unnecessary on a game night where street parking is available. That all changes in less than two weeks.

The Celtics hope fans will provide energy to this underwhelming season. We’ve seen that cut both ways in recent years, and if the team’s struggles continue, the most passionate fans able to acquire limited tickets will be more audible than they would be sprinkled among 19,000 others. Even if it’s boos rather than cheers at TD Garden, it’s something.

“Three words: about ******* time,” Tristan Thompson said of the city’s plan to return fans into The Garden. “Of course we’re limited to 12% or whatever the number is, so I know that will be the strongest 12% there is in the league cheering for us every night.”

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