Friday, September 9, 2011

How I Learned To Quit Worrying and Love the Lockout

I am back from where I was, just in time (far too late) to talk about an unexpectedly great summer in basketball that should never have happened.

In the summer of 2011, there should have been no cause for happiness amongst NBA fans. The expiring collective bargaining agreement and the hard line position of the owners that was unacceptable to the players union meant a lockout was inevitable. Sure enough, the lockout came, and, for a time, things were as bad as we feared.

Then, suddenly they weren’t. The players started doing what they did best: play basketball. Exhibition games, charity games, and haphazard duels broke out all over the country. Pro-am leagues that only rarely see a smattering of pro talent were swamped with NBA players looking to play some ball. Kobe Bryant and others went to Manila for an exhibition game against some of the best Filipino basketball players. Kevin Durant showed up at nearly every basketball court in the country to take on any and all comers, including a now-legendary showing at Rucker Park where he effortlessly put up 66 points. The best players from the LA-based Drew League took on the best from the Washington, DC-based Goodman league. Then Carmelo Anthony, repping Baltimore challenged the Goodman All-Stars to a game and brought along two of his closest pals, namely LeBron James and Chris Paul. Some of these games were streamed on the Internet, but many of them were events that only the people at the game got to see. The rest of us got shaky semi-professional YouTube highlight reels and secondhand tweets. The best players in the world had stepped down from their pedestals and come amongst us. High school and small college gymnasiums played host to some of the most breath-taking games that have been played in the entire year. Basketball right now is not a televised product, but rather a folk phenomenon. These larger than life millionaires aren’t on our TV, they are suddenly and unexpectedly in our gyms: ready to take any and all comers. Instead of a schedule on ESPN, you hear that Jameer Nelson is trying to set up a Baltimore and Philadelphia game and all you can do is check Twitter and see if the game materializes out of thin air. It’s exciting, unpredictable, and not quite graspable. It beats the hell out of watching marginal training camp prospects go at it for a couple of weeks in Las Vegas. Instead of the NBA’s official summer league, we’re getting a trainer-run league in Vegas, designed to help skilled, starting-caliber NBA players stay in playing shape. You know that these games will be fun.

And that’s the crux of the summer. “Professional basketball” right now is a very amorphous thing. No one is sure what will happen in November, and in that uncertainty, there is a certain degree of freedom. Last year, in anticipation of the massive free agency class, many of the NBA’s best turned down chances to play on their respective national teams for the FIBA World Championship. This year, it seems like none of the international players are opting out. Right now in Eurobasket, a full strength Spanish, French, and German team (complete with NBA Finals stud Dirk Nowitzki) are squaring off against a hyper-competitive field this year. Even FIBA Americas has witnessed a jolt in star power as Greivis Vasquez shows his stuff for a rising Venezuela team while a reconstituted Argentinian team looks poised to wreak unholy hell upon the rest of the field. FIBA play has suddenly gotten very good and if the lockout continues, international play is going to get really interesting.

Lots of players are signing on to play for club teams all over the world. Deron Williams made the first big move by signing with Turkish club Besiktas. He was soon followed by all sorts of players wanting to ensure that they will have a job if the entire season is called off. Ty Lawson and Sonny Weems both agreed to play for the same Lithuanian team, while Andrew Bogut is playing coy about which Austrailian team he intends to play for. In the most radical developments, Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith have signed contracts with teams in the Chinese Basketball Association. The signing doesn’t seem so radical until you know that these contracts have either no opt-out clause or a very limited opt out clause. For these two, regardless of when the NBA comes back, they might be spending the year in China, going against Stephon Marbury and the other US expats turned CBA all-stars

A lack of basketball planned for the fall has led to a blossoming of great, or at least fun basketball all summer long and promised interesting developments that might even help grow the game globally in the long term. Of course, this weird weird summer has led to even more bizarre incidents off of any basketball courts. The early summer started with a massive and daring planking war between Gilbert Arenas and JaVale McGee. Meanwhile, Baron Davis made good on his promise to his grandmother to go back to UCLA and work on finishing his college degree. Watching him dorkily tweet about group projects has been a joy. Anthony Randolph did the same thing at LSU and then talked excitedly about enrolling for the fall and rushing a frat. Seriously. Ron Artest decided to change his name to Metta World Peace and very soon you will be able to see him attempt a wide array of dance moves on Dancing with the Stars, because of course that’s what Ron Artest is doing. Shaq started off his retirement by attending a broadcast and film camp where he learned a lot of the technical ends and outs of shooting movies. Blake Griffin decided to do a regular old internship at Funny or Die, because an internship at Funny or Die is the most Blake Griffin thing in the world besides dunking on very tall yet unsuspecting Europeans. Similarly, star endorser of Under Armor, Brandon Jennings decided to take his relationship with the company to another level and start working an internship for the brand. He has his own office and goes to meetings about design and marketing, trying to help UA hone it’s image and product focus.

It’s been a weird summer for NBA players, and I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed it. Hell, this is the best off-season in my memory. There’s nothing like an uncertain future to bring out the goofiest and most carefree in people. The lockout might end tomorrow or it might end a year from tomorrow. After this summer? I’m honestly okay with it going either way.