Free throwing up

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 "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.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky