It's 7 o'clock on Saturday night, 30 minutes before the scheduled tip-off of a celebrity basketball game featuring out-of-work professional National Basketball Association players, most of whom wouldn't be celebrities if they were actually picking up paychecks. But the game, such as it is, will not begin until nearly 8:30, which is the difference between a real NBA game--remember those?--and a charity event featuring players casual fans don't recognize. (Cory Carr? Like, who's that?) Outside Alfred J. Loos Fieldhouse on Spring Valley Road, the parking lot is barely full--might as well be Thomas Jefferson playing Sunset tonight, not a bunch of locked-out starters and bench-warmers shooting hoops for the Red Cross and a handful of other causes.
A few hundred patrons--most young, most black--stand in line, waiting to enter the Fieldhouse to see Shaquille O'Neal and...and...um. "Who else is playin'?" wonders one young man, standing in line as he waits to get checked by the Dallas Independent School District security guards, who go through the occasional purse or pat down someone who looks as if they might be, ya know, trouble. "Seriously, who else is playing, like, besides Master P?" says the teenager, who is indeed wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the No Limit Records logo, the label owned by the multimillionaire rap impresario currently living his hoop dreams with the Fort Wayne Fury of the Continental Basketball Association.
Among the ranks of those in attendance--3,500 in all, give or take, though organizer Kenny Smith says at least 2,000 tickets were given away--are only a few above the age of 30. Even fewer are the pale-faces in the crowd--this ain't Ross Perot Jr.'s luxury-box NBA. One, a man who appears to be in his late 40s, wears a green and white Dallas Mavericks baseball cap--poor, poor misguided soul. When asked why he's here tonight, to watch what's essentially an emasculated game of pick-up, he shrugs. "It's a quick fix," he says, grumbling something about wanting to see Mavericks Steve Nash and Kurt Thomas play ball, any ball. Later, during the second quarter, this man is spotted in the concession-stand lines, where he will wait for 20 minutes, missing the entire period.
Right until tip-off, the tunnels leading from the court to the locker rooms beneath Loos are packed. It is chaos, with former Houston Rocket point guard Kenny Smith running around as he checks on uniforms and barks into his cellular phone. Meanwhile, a few lesser lights of the league--among them former Dallas Maverick Sam Cassell, free-agent Cedric Ceballos, and Los Angeles Laker Robert Horry--wander through the throngs of hangers-on choking the tunnels, looking for shoes and T-shirts--anything so they can suit up and play. "Man, I don't know what's goin' on," Cassell says, looking like a man who would rather be anywhere than here.
When Shaq finally arrives, amidst much hoopla (didn't anyone see Steel?), he takes over an entire locker room, then emerges a few minutes later and tells the mere three reporters covering this game that he has five minutes to answer our "dumb-ass questions." When he does answer a few queries--most about the lockout or why he's not playing tonight, even though he was advertised as the main attraction--he speaks in a whisper and is barely heard above the ruckus surrounding him. He does mention something about touring behind his new rap record in case the lockout doesn't end. Please, God, make it end now.
A few minutes later, Master P--known to his family as occasional Houston resident Percy Miller--arrives with his posse behind him, a dozen or so men wearing No Limit leather jackets and gold-and-diamond-studded No Limit medallions. Several of the NBA players watching the procession file in note that Master P could buy and sell the whole lot of them, maybe even Shaq too, but that he ain't no ball player. As if to make his point, during the game, Master P will accidentally slap the Dallas Mavericks' recently acquired point guard Steve Nash in the face, leaving a red welt.
This, sports fans, is the closest thing Dallas has seen to pro basketball since the NBA owners locked out its players over the summer, insisting that the players' demand for 60 percent of all basketball-related income (around $2 billion) is way too high and that there is a need for a hard salary cap.
But tonight's event is not even basketball. It's more like professional wrestling in a high school gym, or, at the very least, an all-star game without the all-stars.
When the game finally does begin, Shaq sits on the bench dressed in a mesh football-style jersey (which reads, FUBU, thanks very much) and baggy jeans. It seems there isn't a pair of pants in the arena big enough to fit O'Neal, though Kenny Smith had a week to track down a pair of the 3-XL shorts he had requested. The biggest NBA star in attendance spends the entirety of the game talking into a cellular phone, sucking on lollipops, posing for pictures, signing the random autograph--though he wouldn't sign Rawlings basketballs, since he doesn't have an endorsement deal with the company. "I can't sign Rawlings, brutha," he tells one guy extending a ball and a pen. Later, one of the women organizing the event says Shaq didn't suit up because Rawlings also provided the players' shorts tonight. O'Neal heatedly disputes this. He just can't fit into the shorts. Fact is, the dude's fat, and not with a ph either.
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.
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"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.