- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

For the roughly 1,600 folks who crammed into Trinity University’s gym Saturday night, it didn’t matter that the NBA lockout is nearly two months old. It didn’t matter that progress on a labor agreement has been scant and bargaining sessions scanter. And though it will matter if the dispute eventually wipes out a portion or all of the upcoming season, that possibility was boxed out for the evening.

This night was reserved for the game of basketball — not the business — with an assortment of slam dunks, deep threes, deft crossovers and one-on-one tangos normally associated with All-Star Games, with the bonus of lockdown defense in the fourth quarter, the harassment typically seen as tight playoff games draw to a close.

The East vs. West battle billed as “Capital Punishment” was a great diversion. Washington’s Goodman League all-stars, led by Kevin Durant and John Wall, got the best of their counterparts from Los Angeles’ Drew League, led by James Harden and Brandon Jennings. Durant was the game-high scorer with 44 points and took home MVP honors. Jennings, the Milwaukee Bucks guard whose fearless forays would’ve earned him the award in a Drew victory, paced his squad with 38 points.

They played for nothing but bragging rights, which was motivation aplenty. You never would have known that Durant and Harden are Oklahoma City Thunder teammates as they matched up regularly, pushing and shoving one another in good-natured-but-serious fashion. Wizards teammates Wall and JaVale McGee lacked personal encounters in their opposing jerseys, but Wall was reunited with a fellow one-and-done from Kentucky, the Sacramento Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins, who abused McGee for back-to-back dunks.

Watching so many stars, starters and key subs — there were 11 NBA players between the two rosters — seemed surreal in the tiny home of a Division III women’s team. But summer pro-am basketball leagues such as Goodman, Drew and New York’s famed Rucker have garnered more attention during this labor-marred offseason. There’s talk of a “Capital Punishment” rematch in L.A., as well as the Goodman all-stars facing New York and Philadelphia counterparts.

At Trinity, the players wore T-shirts that read “Basketball Never Stops.” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray addressed the crowd and tossed up the honorary jump ball. “Let’s keep basketball going, whether the NBA comes back or not!” he said.

It was a great event, carried live via pay-per-view on thebasketballchannel.net, with hundreds of fans turned away (tickets or not) because of overcrowding.

However, the game also highlighted the inherent challenges if such ventures are to replace the NBA during a protracted lockout.

For starters, it was held in a 1,600-seat gym. Even if Goodman commissioner Miles Rawls had been successful in securing a 5,000-seat venue, about 20,000 fans can attend NBA games at Verizon Center. And if these affairs aren’t carried on TV — local broadcast, public access, regional cable or something — they lose cachet, regardless of Internet buys and star performers.

Keeping the players motivated for regularly scheduled contests could be problematic, too, especially if fees have to come out of their pockets for travel and lodging expenses such as many Drew players did. That model of “pay-to-play” won’t have support for long.

“Everybody thinks it’s all about the money,” Wall said after scoring 28 points in Goodman’s 135-134 victory. “It’s not about the money. I just want to play basketball. I love to play basketball.”

And we love to watch, as evidenced by the NBA’s impressive TV ratings and strong attendance figures last season. But there’s more to “pro basketball” than players — namely sales, marketing, advertising and other professionals in business operations. It takes folks with more capital, access and influence than a summer-league commissioner, with solid business plans and clear, realistic flow charts to cover costs and expenses — including player compensation.

Minus all of that, there’s going to be a major void if the NBA lockout drags on.

The lockout does create an opportunity for regular replacement games, but not without a well-organized and coordinated effort. That’s the only way to produce rosters and a schedule, to secure arenas and broadcast partners, to sell tickets and advertising, to attract media and sponsors. That approach would be a much bigger threat to NBA officials than the prospect of a handful of superstars playing overseas.

An NBA alternative wouldn’t have enough slots to accommodate 450 players like the current NBA (30 teams, 15 players each), but contraction already is on the table in labor discussions. Though the players union has to be wary of dividing its membership, it should take the lead in creating the framework for a possible “substitute league” during the lockout.

Besides serving as a possible bargaining chip to hasten an agreement, better planning and execution would maximize the potential of events like “Capital Punishment.” And that would make such games a win-win for players and fans — way more than 1,600 of the latter.