Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird receives a basketball honoring her achievement of becoming the only player in league history to amass 3,000 career assists on Sunday, July 11, 2021 in Everett, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird receives a basketball honoring her achievement of becoming the only player in league history to amass 3,000 career assists on Sunday, July 11, 2021 in Everett, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Getting a feel for normalcy

Loved the energy, spirit at the Seattle Storm’s home game on Sunday

EVERETT — When Jewell Loyd drained a contested 3-pointer as the shot clock expired, giving the Seattle Storm a six-point lead over the Phoenix Mercury with with less than two minutes remaining in the game, the crowd at Angel of the Winds Arena erupted, making so much noise it became impossible to hear the officials blow their whistles.

No, things aren’t back to normal in the sporting world just yet. But Sunday’s game suggested it’s getting there.

It had been more than 16 months since I’d covered an indoor sporting event, and Sunday afternoon’s game between the Storm and Mercury — the Storm’s final game before the month-long break for the Olympics — afforded an opportunity to find out how close things are to being back to normal.

The Storm are playing all their home games at Angel of the Winds this season as they wait for their new home, Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, to be completed. The Storm played five home games in Everett in 2019, and were set to increase that number to eight last season before the pandemic forced the WNBA to conduct its entire 2020 campaign in a Bradenton, Florida, bubble. A season, by the way, in which the Storm claimed their fourth league championship.

And the Storm have served as a good test case for indoor sports attendance in Snohomish County. When their season began in May, Angel of the Winds was open to just 2,000 fans. That number increased to 4,500 in June, and following Governor Jay Inslee’s June 30 declaration of the reopening of Washington the arena is now open to full capacity — though full capacity is currently 6,500 instead of the usual 9,000 as the west end zone is configured to allow unvaccinated fans to distance themselves. Vaccinated fans are no longer required to wear masks.

The announced attendance has seen a corresponding increase. There were 1,031 who showed up for the season opener on May 15, and that gradually increased to a season-high 3,011 on July 2.

So how many would show up Sunday?

Early on it looked like it was going to be a sparse crowd, fans still reluctant to venture out during the coronavirus pandemic. But by the time the game was underway the lower-bowl sections along the sidelines were mostly filled, and the upper level had a decent number of fans, too. The announced attendance was 5,110, which blew away the previous season high — for comparison, the Storm averaged 6,816 in their games at Angel of the Winds in 2019 — and those 5,110 enthusiastically banged their thundersticks throughout to provide an atmosphere that resembled pre-pandemic levels.

“It did (feel closest to normal at a home game so far this season),” Seattle coach Noelle Quinn said via postgame Zoom conference — and it’s curious that restrictions have been lifted for the fans, but all media availability is still conducted virtually. “Sunday fun day, right? It was good to see everybody in good spirits, good to have a very good game to show our fans against a very good Phoenix team. It felt good today, the atmosphere, the energy, you could definitely feel it.

“When we first started the fans were kind of far away,” Quinn added. “Now we have our floor seats back and you see the support the city is showing us.”

The vast majority of fans at Sunday’s games went unmasked — including former Seattle SuperSonics star Shawn Kemp, who was situated under the east basket. But not all of them, and I suspect there were enough masked fans that if attendees weren’t comfortable going unmasked, they didn’t feel self-conscious about it. Heck, Quinn and Phoenix star Diana Taurasi (who sat out with an injured hip) both wore their masks on the bench.

As for the game itself, the Storm lived up to their championship billing. When Seattle played home games at Angel of the Winds in 2019 the team was also the defending WNBA champion, but the fans in Everett didn’t get to see the Storm as their true selves as stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart both sat out the entire season because of injury.

Both were in the lineup Sunday and showed why they, along with Loyd, will be playing for the U.S. at the Olympics in Tokyo. Bird, who was honored before the game for becoming the first player in WNBA history to record 3,000 career assists, led a third-quarter 3-point barrage that allowed Seattle to open up a double-digit lead. Stewart went more than 12 minutes before hitting her first bucket, but found a bit of a rhythm through the middle part of the game. Both finished with 13 points. With support players Epiphanny Prince (15 points) and Katie Lou Samuelson (14 points) providing added spark, Seattle went on to defeat the short-handed Mercury 82-75 to secure the league’s best record at the Olympic break at 16-5.

Kia Nurse scored 28 and made seven 3-pointers as Phoenix made a late push, but it wasn’t enough for the Mercury (9-10).

The Storm are now off until Aug. 15, and their next home game isn’t until Aug. 27 when they host the Chicago Sky at Angel of the Winds. Seattle has five regular season games remaining in Everett, and the Storm will also hold their playoff games here.

So when the Storm return to Everett, provided we haven’t had another spike in coronavirus cases and you’re comfortable with it, I encourage you to come out and catch a Storm game. Climate Pledge Arena will be ready in October, so this will be your last chance to see the world’s best women’s basketball club team in person in our own backyard.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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