It's naive to say that the NBA lockout proved that somewhere along the way, the owners forgot about the game. Of course they did. There are billions of dollars at stake. Somehow, despite that, players remain caught up in the game. You can tell for which side basketball is a nice hobby, perhaps a solid investment, and for which side basketball is everything. The dichotomy helps frame the issues in a way sympathetic to players, certainly, but also shines a big, bright spotlight on the dependence players have on the game to exist.
The idea that only David Stern, his owners and their executives can give basketball to the masses is becoming more and more ridiculous. Out in Davis, California, on Sunday, Donte Greene -- a primarily bench player for the Sacramento Kings who has clashed with coaches, teammates and reality in three years since leaving Syracuse too soon -- put on a wonderful show for fans, drawing all of his big-name teammates for a charity game dubbed the Goon Squad Classic.
Greene, of course, has no experience in game production. Neither did the game's organizers, who double as the leaders of Greene's Circle of Success Foundation. Yet somehow, with only weeks to plan, no promotional budget and no access to Kings' facilities, equipment and most importantly staff, Greene and friends pulled it off. The game drew 4,000 fans out to UC Davis for a night of dunks, 40-footers and the sort of giveaways that make normally rational folks go absolutely nuts. (Who needs a t-shirt cannon when DeMarcus Cousins can heave them into the upper level?)
Greene didn't need the NBA's expertise to put this on. He didn't need any sort of institutional investment, though he got some help from a few key local sponsors and Nike, who has been offering up custom jerseys for these events all over the country. The Goon Squad Classic didn't sell out, and no one in the NBA's offices is going to truly fear a rebel league anytime soon -- not with 29 of the very best arenas in the country (plus Toronto) already spoken for. But basketball? It's just a game. If you get some great players out there on the court, fans will show up. We love this game.
That old NBA marketing pitch seems beyond ridiculous at this point, simply because both the owners and players are putting conditions on their love of the game. Fans don't. We don't love this game only when things are going right for our team; even the worst teams draw more than 10,000 warm bodies 41 times a year. We don't love this game only when it's financially sensible, because if we did we would rarely love this game. We always love this game, through thick and thin. It's why we care right now. It's why we'll be back when the official NBA ball goes up.
Though their constraints are understandable, owners have not shown a lick of love for the game. Players, however, are doing everything they can to share their love of the game with fans, the people who support their salaries. Players like Donte Greene are becoming leaders off of the court, and non-NBA employees are figuring out how to put on games with NBA-caliber players. No one's taking a salary. In this society, with wealth as the ultimate form of power, with business pervading every corner of our lives, doing something for free is the truest from of love. I guess we know where players stand on that old NBA marketing pitch. I know it's naive, but I hope the owners join them at some point.
MATT HARPRING'S INVISIBLE DISCLOSURE
Last week, before the player reps unanimously voted down the NBA's lockout offer and authorized Billy Hunter to file a disclaimer of interest to set the path for anti-trust lawsuits, former Utah Jazz forward Matt Harpring made his position on the league's offer known via Twitter:
read the NBA proposal- Not only would i vote yes, i would be calling all my friends around the league to do the same
Harpring forgot to mention that, like current NBA players, his own paychecks depend on basketball being played. Harpring is a commentator on Jazz broadcasts. If there are no games, there is no Harpring on TV. If there is no Harpring on TV, there is no paycheck. So while Harpring has nothing to gain by the players holding out for a better deal, he has plenty to lose. He has a huge amount of self-interest in seeing the lockout end.
It's also worth noting that Harpring was exactly the type of player who benefits from a robust mid-level exception. While Harpring went to Utah in 2002, when their payroll was relatively low, and re-signed there under Bird rights in 2006, without a big fat mid-level out there for the taking, he wouldn't have made the $50 million he did as a player. Harpring was a defensive-minded glue guy, just the sort of player who fights over $4-7 million annual salaries with James Posey, Trevor Ariza, Dahntay Jones and Arron Afflalo. Take that mid-level exception off of the table for luxury tax teams -- often the contenders looking to round out the roster -- and replace it with a smaller one, and salaries for Harpring types will fall. I wonder if five years ago Harpring would have endorsed such a deal. Something tells me he wouldn't.