Teklu, a teenager whose family immigrated from Ethiopia when he was a toddler, said he struggled with not having his father in his life. Basketball is his therapy, but he can get it only in slim drips right now.
Three days a week, he meets a few teammates at a gym, and they run through individual drills.
“It’s not enough,” he told me, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s not nearly enough. Basketball has always been my way to step away from reality. It has always helped me deal with my emotions and what is going on in my life.”
No real games. No real practices. Only faint hopes for a senior season and one last chance to impress a college coach.
“All of this,” he said, “has taken a toll.”
Rich Luker is worried.
He is the founder of Luker on Trends, which has long provided data and advice about building loyal fans to pro leagues such as the N.F.L. and Major League Baseball. He is also a social psychologist who has made a career out of studying the bond between sports involvement at an early age and a lifetime passion for it.
To Luker, the pandemic-fueled decline in youth participation is just one piece of a larger puzzle.
Few people are attending games of any kind. The fear of large crowds is wise, and it’s keeping most of us away from sitting in stands or standing on sidelines or even gathering for television watch parties.
But we need to be aware of the cost: Children, families and friends have been cut from fandom’s communal tradition. There are now far fewer chances to form friendships around watching sports together, and less opportunity for our youth to feel the generation-to-generation connections that come from getting together and rooting for a team.
It’s not just professional or college games we’re missing.
Next year, it is likely that teams in dozens of cities and towns across the country will shutter for good.