John Wall began to change from his uniform after playing at Coolidge High in Northwest Washington as children formed a semicircle around his folding chair on the bench, gazing at each other in wonderment, waiting for someone to summon the courage to ask him to pose for a picture.
The encounters, in venues far more intimate than 20,000-seat arenas, have been commonplace at gyms around the country, as NBA superstars have staged an unscripted barnstorming tour to keep the game thriving with the league shut down because of the lockout. For the past three months, millionaire NBA players have made a statement that, although their teams’ billionaire owners have control of the league, they do not have rule over the game.
“When we play these games, we do them at small places, so it’s all about getting back to where we started, getting back to those recreation centers. The fans are so excited and when the fans get excited, so are we,” said Paul, the New Orleans Hornets all-star guard.
A change of venue
The NBA work stoppage is in its 87th day and the labor dispute threatens the start of the season — if not the whole campaign — for a league that generated nearly $4 billion in revenue last season. The league announced on Friday the first casualties of the discord: training camp, scheduled to open on Oct. 3, has been postponed and 43 preseason games from Oct. 9 to 15 were canceled.
But that hasn’t stopped professional basketball players from taking to the court on asphalt and hardwood courts to play pickup games for free in Los Angeles or Baltimore, participate in charity basketball games in college or high school gyms in Washington or even play in a makeshift series of games in Las Vegas.
“It’s a great opportunity, not just for me, but for all of us to give back to the community,” Wall said. “We’re going to different neighborhoods, states, and playing. It might be somebody’s only chance to see us play. . . . Why not try to play basketball and stay in shape? I don’t need to make no money. If it’s for a good cause, I’m happy with it.”
Fans have been able to sit courtside for $100 or less for the opportunity to watch entertaining, high-scoring, fast-paced games that are often for nothing more than individual or regional bragging rights. The demand can often exceed the size of the gyms, making for a raucous, standing-room atmosphere that fuels inspired play from the participants. Oklahoma City’s Durant and Miami’s James dueled in Baltimore on Aug. 30, with James scoring 38 points and Durant countering with 59. Fans screamed with anticipation every time the stars touched the basketball.
“People fail to realize that this has been going on for years,” Anthony , a forward for the Knicks, said when his Baltimore-based Melo League played an all-star team representing the District-based Goodman League at Morgan State last month. “I play in my league every year. . . . I think people around here are kind of used to me playing in my own summer league, and they like that.”
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant made a surprising visit to the Los Angeles-based Drew League pro-am at the 800-seat Washington Park gymnasium and lifted his arms after making a game-winning jumper as fans mobbed and hugged him in a way that security guards would not allow at Staples Center.
“You can’t do that at arenas,” said Miles Rawls, the Goodman League commissioner. “I tell my security, as long as it’s in order and [the players] don’t have a problem with [fans] getting too close to them, as long as they ain’t running anybody over, I don’t see no problem with it.”
Though most players take out individual insurance policies, organizers for the game also take similar measures to protect players in case of injury. “I’d rather see them playing in the [NBA], getting paid and making their living. But we’re not affecting the NBA,” said Dino Smiley, Drew League commissioner. “We’re playing these games. It’s not bothering them to play now.”
And, while the games can get intense, players aren’t looking to harm each other, so a defensive breakdown will lead to an unmolested drive for a dunk instead of a hard foul.
How long will it last?
The Goodman League has already staged pro-am battles with the Drew League and the Melo League and took on the Knox Indy Pro-Am on Saturday in Indianapolis. In Saturday’s game, Wall finished with 41 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds as Goodman won, 170-167.
James, Anthony and Paul will take their talents to the Palestra in Philadelphia for another charity exhibition. And more are on the way, with the Goodman League scheduled to travel to New York on Friday to play the Entertainers Basketball Classic League at Long Island University and head out to Los Angeles for a rematch with the Drew League on Oct. 9.
“I was telling Dino, ‘We’ve got to get it while the getting’s good,’ ” said Rawls, who personally reaches out to most local players to make requests. “We have access to these players. If it wasn’t for the lockout, you wouldn’t have access to them like this.”
Players at most of these charity games wear Nike-sponsored T-shirts and uniforms emblazoned with the letters BBNS, an acronym for Basketball Never Stops. While the games may not be sustainable as a long-term alternative — none of the matchups are televised, and Internet streaming has been spotty — they have provided an opportunity for players who haven’t gone overseas during the work stoppage. Rawls acknowledged that players may not want to continue to foot their own bills to travel for games in an effort to raise money for charity.
“If everybody doesn’t go overseas, we would like to keep it going, but I’m thinking, by the end of October, I’m thinking, these guys are going to say, ‘We’ve done enough for charity, now we’ve got to get some paychecks,’ ” he said. “Next time, they are going to have their hands out, which is understandable.”
Durant has been a mainstay at several exhibitions and pro-am pickup games this offseason, but the District native said some players could be patient until they receive their regular checks from the NBA. For now, he will settle for having a competitive outlet until the lockout is lifted.
“We all love the game of basketball,” Durant said. “This is like recess for me. Hopefully we can bring our skills to the NBA. If the season is not going to go on, we’re going to continue to keep scheduling these games and try to get better and try to put a show on for people.”