Free throwing up

Locked out and fed up, some NBA, uh, all-stars hoop it way down

With or without O'Neal, the game unfolds like a low-rent highlight reel of slam-dunks and alley-oops. Who would have thought such high-flying, show-off antics could become so boring so quickly? Never at any moment do all 10 players end up on the same side of the court; never is there even a hint of defense--God forbid someone hustle and hurt himself, especially one of the free agents looking for a deal once the lockout ends. (OK, if the lockout ends.) Hard to tell if this is an offensive game--or just an offensive game, an insult to those who paid anywhere from $20 to $100 to get a roundball fix for their NBA jones. By halftime, the score is 84-79--and I couldn't tell you on a bet which team, Blue or White, is up. Or, for that matter, who won.

Referees try to make a contest of it, even calling illegal defense and traveling during the first period, but by the second quarter, the refs abandon their worthwhile cause. The crowd's enthusiasm dwindles as well, until Loos becomes quieter than Reunion Arena during a real Mavericks game. There are only so many one-handed jams you can stand from the likes of Cory Carr or Rasheed Wallace or George McCloud, only so many missed three-points by Master P you can stomach--though it was P who received the biggest cheer from the crowd when the lineups were introduced. By the end of the game, teen-beat groupies wearing Lycra tops and leather bottoms congregate on the sidelines, shooting the breeze with Maverick Erick Strickland--out the second half with a hamstring injury, and don't tell Don Nelson--and some of the other players, who make happy small talk with the girlies.

Somehow, instead of fulfilling a craving for basketball, this fiasco leaves a funny taste in the mouth. It's not the slightest bit entertaining--insulting is more like it, even condescending. We miss basketball--the game, the institution, the Saturday-afternoon showdowns on television. We don't necessarily miss the players--not these guys at least, players who think all we care about are lazy dunks and missed threes. Fact is, we don't need their charity.

"It gives the people what they want, but it wasn't fun as far as the competitive sense at all," Steve Nash offers after the game, standing in the hallway while Master P and his entourage brush by, shoving pros out of the way and into the walls. Nash is, to say the least, disheartened that his first appearance in Dallas after being signed by the Mavs is at a charity event; he would rather this were the real thing, but instead he's stuck playing pick-up games during the week at the Landry Center, hosting a few charity camps for kids, and appearing on KTCK-AM (1310)'s Dunham and Miller radio show every Friday morning. "Until the real lights come on, it won't be the same. It's too bad, but what else can I do?"

Every single player interviewed before and after the game uses the same word to describe the current impasse between owners and players: "frustrating." Only Ceballos seems at ease with the lockout, because, for some reason, he's under the wrong-headed impression that once the lockout ends and free-agents are signed (and it's likely he will not return to the Mavs), they will receive a full year's salary, including back pay from missed games. No way, Ced--not unless you want the biggest class-action suit in pro-sports history. What is union boss Billy Hunter telling you, anyway?

The rest of the players on the floor are not so foolish: They know each day that passes without an agreement between the players' union and owners is one more day without ball, without a paycheck--and one step closer to losing the entire season, as NBA commissioner and doomsayer David Stern keeps insisting. But Strickland, Ceballos, Nash, and Mavs forward Kurt Thomas--who sat out all of last season with an injured ankle--insist theirs is a just cause, worth losing money over today so they and the players who follow them can reap their fair share of the profits tomorrow.

"I realize what the NBA players are fighting for," says Thomas, who is now healthy and anxious to prove he's not an injured bust. "I'm just hanging in there. I can't wait till this whole ordeal is over with. It's frustrating, but I am making the best of it. If we have to lose the whole season, we lose the whole season. We're fighting for something we feel is right. I made a lot of money since I've been playing, and I put a lot of my money away for a rainy day. And today, it's raining. It's pouring.

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