Bulls players ready for fans’ long-awaited return to United Center

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Bulls excited for fans’ long-awaited return to United Center originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Beyond potential play-in (or draft lottery) implications, the Bulls’ matchup with the Boston Celtics Friday night at the United Center carries special significance.

For the first time this season, and the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the league in March 2020, the arena will host a limited capacity of fans for a game. The city and organization’s joint announcement on April 29 made them the 28th NBA franchise to open itself to the public.

As one might imagine, players are anxious to welcome the Bulls faithful back.

“It’s good,” Zach LaVine said. “Whenever we went and played in arenas where they had fans, it was refreshing, especially to interact with some of the people and hear the crowd noise. Some trash-talking or cheers or whatever it is, just having that atmosphere in basketball is great. With your home fans and the city being back here, it’s going to be great. Very excited to at least play some games back at the United Center with our fans there.”

“We’re excited to have fans,” Tomáš Satoranský added. “That’s part of the reason why you play.”

Approximately 4,000 spectators are expected, with health screening, distanced seating, contactless payment for vendors and other health and safety protocols in effect.

While that may not fully replace the arena’s normally, in Billy Donovan’s words, “electric” homecourt atmosphere, it certainly beats piped in crowd noise and prerecorded chants ringing across hollow concourses.

I've always said, just coming into Chicago, this is an electric environment,” Donovan said. “The fans here make it I think a great homecourt advantage. Certainly not having them here, I think certainly early in the year for our guys was an adjustment.”

The Bulls enter play 12-20 on their home floor this season, compared to 15-19 on the road. Even that 0.375 winning percentage trumps their cumulative 40-76 home record from the beginning of the 2017-18 campaign to the start of 2020-21.

But most around the league agree that homecourt advantage has been a figment of the imagination in this still-pandemic affected year.

“Any time a team's playing well, the home teams' (fans) are gonna get really involved, and there definitely is a homecourt advantage,” Donovan said. “I've said this before, I think with the way the league has gone this year, I'm not so sure it's really been the case, even for some places that have allowed fans in. It's not the same. And playing on the road is not the same and playing at home is not the same. So it's all a little bit different.”

The hope is that progress toward some form of normalcy continues throughout the summer, and the United Center’s full capacity can welcome the Bulls for the start of next season.

“Hopefully we'll be able to get, by next year, places filled,” Donovan said. “But I think the fact that we can before this season's complete be able to get some fans into the building is a great step forward.”

For now, the Bulls are grateful for any boost they can garner down the stretch. After the Celtics matchup, three additional home games remain on the schedule -- against the Brooklyn Nets on May 11, Toronto Raptors on May 13 and Milwaukee Bucks on May 16 to close the campaign.

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