Even as they prepared to play one of the biggest games of their lives, the stars of the 2021 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four could not help but express regret for those who will be missing from at Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany, when the semifinals are played Friday night: the fans.
Of course, as in much of the sports world, the Final Four players became accustomed in recent months to playing most of their games in empty arenas. But when it comes to the Final Four, which is always sold out with basketball lovers from all over the world, the players feel for fans who cannot contribute for the first time to the pageantry that makes the event a singular celebration of the sport.
"The players missed the fans just as much as the fans miss the players."
"The players missed the fans just as much as the fans miss the players because it creates a different atmosphere," Anadolu Efes Istanbul superstar Shane Larkin said on the eve of the semifinals. "It creates a different kind of energy in the building when you're playing in front of fans. Cheers, boos, getting on the refs... just the whole atmosphere of basketball has felt different all season and it's made it a little more difficult. But I definitely missed the fans, and I know they miss us. I feel for the Efes fans, and I feel for all the fans."
For Andrea Cinciarini, the veteran captain of AX Armani Exchange Milan, his own long wait to debut at the Final Four pales in comparison to the 29 years that have passed since the club's last appearance at the event. As such, Cinciarini is keeping Milan's fans close to heart this weekend despite the distance between them.
"I am so sorry for them because they are always there, they always pack the gym. They waited for us and sent us off before we left to come here," Cinciarini said. "After 29 years we are back in the Final Four and it's the year that they cannot come. For sure, they will be in front of their TVs to support us, but for Milan it's a shame to be in the Final Four after a long time without the fans."
They say that fans are like the sixth man for home teams in their own arenas, but at the Final Four they have been very much like a fifth team. Their collective star quality, which has reverberated in viral videos shared around the world over the years, is also a source of wonder for the players themselves as seen from their spot at the center of a true world basketball party.
"Everything is better with fans," FC Barcelona star Alex Abrines said. "The Final Four is a great event and it is even more beautiful with fans, with all four groups of fans cheering for their teams. It is great to see when fans of a team cheer for a different one during the other semifinal, too! It will be strange without them."
"The Final Four is a great event and it is even more beautiful with fans."
Johannes Voigtmann, one of the two German players at the Final Four, had been hoping that the people of Cologne would get a strong taste of the EuroLeague devotion, whether in person at Lanxess Arena or around town with the influx of fans for what is usually an event-filled weekend outside the games themselves.
"It is terrible for them because they are waiting for two years now," Voigtmann said. "We feel for them, we feel for everybody that loves basketball and loves the Final Four. The atmosphere is just different without the fans, we hope that they can come back as soon as possible. We hope it will be the last Final Four without the fans."