LAS VEGAS — When the NBA last locked out its players in 1998, Rashard Lewis was a teenager living in his mother’s house. He didn’t know what it meant to miss NBA checks because the Seattle SuperSonics had yet to pay him after selecting him in the second round.
But Lewis has much more to lose during this lockout, with a salary that would make him the second-highest paid player in the league next season at $22 million.
He could lose some or all of that money, depending on how long the lockout lasts, but the veteran forward fully supports the players’ union and plans to do whatever it takes to ensure that future generations of NBA players can experience the same benefits past veterans fought for in the last labor dispute.
“I’m willing to sacrifice my salary to get a fair deal,” Lewis said after playing a game with Washington Wizards teammates John Wall, Jordan Crawford and JaVale McGee here at the Impact Basketball Competitive Training Series. “It’s only fair.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern and the owners contend that a system that allows a player such as Lewis — who made his last all-star appearance 2009 — to make more money than any player not named Kobe Bryant is an example of a broken economic model that needs to be fixed for the overall good of the league. Lewis averaged 11.7 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in 57 games last season.
Lewis believes he shouldn’t be blamed for the six-year, $118 million contract he signed with the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2007.
“Talk to the owner. He gave me the deal,” Lewis said. “When it comes to contracts, the players aren’t sitting there negotiating that contract. I’m sitting at home and my agent calls me, saying, ‘I got a max on the table.’ I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘Naw, that’s too much. Go out there and negotiate $20 or $30 [million] less.’ ”
“I thought my agent did a good job of negotiating my contract, and at the time I was coming out of Seattle, averaging 23 points, playing well. It was perfect timing for me,” Lewis continued. “At the same time, I understand the owners don’t want to overpay players, but you’ve got to do better negotiating. Try your best to save money.”
NBA owners are pushing for a hard salary cap similar to the financial structure in the NHL, which Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis once said saved him from taking “stupid pills.” The union has been opposed to accepting anything dramatically different from the last collective bargaining agreement, though they are willing to reduce their share of the $4 billion in basketball-related revenue. With little progress made in last week’s negotiating session in New York, Lewis believes this could be a lengthy battle.
“It’s not good news that we’ve been hearing, and it could take a while. But I’ve been encouraging guys to stay in shape and stay in the gym because, who knows? One day, the lockout may end and they say, you have to go to camp in one week. Just like the NFL got a deal together in the last minute,” Lewis said.
“We may miss half the season or the whole season. But you don’t want to be thinking about that every day. You can still get in the gym and work out. The last lockout, I remember a couple of guys came in out of shape. One of those guys was Vin Baker. I’ve seen guys suffer from the lockout.”
Lewis joined the Wizards last December in a deal for former franchise player Gilbert Arenas, which was seen as a swap of stale contracts. Lewis’s season was cut short in March because of a recurring problem with tendinitis in his right knee. He avoided surgery by having a platelet-rich plasma procedure that he believed would encourage a more natural healing process.
His primary focus this offseason was rehabilitating his knee at the Plex training facility in Houston and regaining some explosiveness so that he could resemble the player he was in Seattle. The 6-foot-10 Lewis has shown a more well-rounded game in Las Vegas, slashing to the basket, catching alley-oop dunks and trying to abandon the reputation he established for being a spot-up, three-point shooter in Orlando.
Lewis, 32, also got married in August to his longtime girlfriend, Giovanna Fortes, at a resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. “As she would say, it was long overdue,” Lewis said with a laugh. “Been with my girlfriend 11 long years, got two kids [Gianna and Rashard Jr.]. But my whole summer has been revolving around my family, with the wedding and rehabbing.”
The labor situation has created some logistical problems for Lewis, since he wants to continue to stay in shape but doesn’t have access to the Wizards’ training facilities. His daughter started school in the District, forcing him to commute back-and-forth from Houston. This time around, Lewis can’t just stay at home.
“I don’t want to stop my training and become a house-husband,” he said. “Of course, I would like the lockout to end and continue to get paid off the deal I have now. But it’s not just about me. One guy can’t determine the lockout. The whole thing is, we’re trying to make sure we get a fair deal for guys like John Wall and Jordan Crawford, JaVale McGee, for the future of the NBA. The guys before me made the way for me, so we’ve got to keep it going.”