Players lose luxuries, teams lose contact with strict lockout rules
Players will be forced to forgo their accustomed luxuries during a lockout
Team officials must wait and wonder what kind of shape the players will be in
Most players won't miss checks until November because of the pay schedule
When the last NBA lockout was finally lifted in 1999, Larry Brown was among the lucky ones.
The then-Philadelphia coach had veterans like Matt Geiger and Eric Snow to help in the most unusual of offseasons, imploring young players to stay in shape while they were unable to communicate with the coaches and trainers who would typically keep them on task. Not every coach was so lucky.
Then-Cleveland coach Mike Fratello said goodbye to one version of Shawn Kemp in the summertime and said hello to a much-bigger version six months later, when the then-29-year-old who had signed a seven-year, $98 million deal in 1997 reportedly arrived at training camp weighing more than 300 pounds and was never the same in the years to come. With the lockout officially in effect, Kemp is the cautionary tale that is now a concern for executives and coaches around the league in this restrictive and unforgiving labor landscape.
"If you don't have veteran guys, the rookies are going to struggle [in a lockout]," said Brown, whose team improved in the lockout-shortened season and survived until the second round of the playoffs. "You have to have leadership that has everyone ready to go when the time comes because you can't afford to have guys playing into shape in training camp."
It's one of the many challenges of life in a lockout, with the players forced to forgo the luxuries they've grown so accustomed to while team officials wait and wonder what kind of shape their investments will be in when they return. The rules of this game are strict on the part of the NBA. Significant fines are assessed to any team employees who dare disobey, with one GM estimating the monetary punishment at $1 million.
Team employees are not permitted to have even remote contact with players, their agents or even their friends or family members, meaning the lines of communication between the two sides are completely cut off. Players, meanwhile, can't use team facilities or enjoy the many perks that come with the NBA lifestyle.
"It's kind of like sending your kids off to summer camp," one general manager said this week. "You want to make sure they have all the stuff they need, all the clothes they need, and all the tools they need, all the money they need and everything they need. But then it's out of your control. Some kids come home crying and some kids have the best experience of their lives. That's really what this is.
"You can't talk to their agent, to their uncle, their brother, some buddy of theirs. Nothing. I think the commissioner [David Stern] is going to threaten people with such an incredible amount of money or draft picks that people will obey."
The awkward exchanges will ensue in the coming weeks, as players are sure to bend the rules if only because of habit. As a result, executives and coaches will find themselves hitting "ignore" on any and all cellphone calls that aren't identifiable while others will have to hang up quickly for fear that their phone records might become evidence.
The list of off-court deeds that are done for players is often long, with team officials collaborating with agents to provide a support system that will no longer be in place. No more free carwashes or help with that speeding ticket you forgot to handle. No more free lunch -- both literally and figuratively. And as noted by veteran center Brad Miller recently when he revealed that he recently had microfracture surgery on his left knee, even rehabilitation must be handled elsewhere.
"At the end of the day, the league wants it to be difficult [for the players]," one executive said. "It's like getting kicked out of a club."
Exceptions on contact will be made only with the approval of the league office. Players with upcoming weddings, for example, must submit a list of names of attendees who work for the NBA in order to help their guests avoid reprimand. But there will be no forgiveness for seemingly innocent mistakes. The onus is on team employees to avoid putting themselves in the same locale as players or communicate with them in any way.
"What it amounts to," another GM said, "is that before you go do anything [involving a player], you'd better check with the league office."
Friendships can and will be tested during these times, too. One executive expressed concern that a player who isn't educated on these rules might take it personally when a team employee essentially pretends he doesn't exist.
"Eighty percent of the league doesn't know what they're facing right now," one of the GMs said regarding the players.
Teams have been preparing for this day for months, many of them issuing a script of sorts that details the preferred offseason training program and desired goals to achieve for that particular player and some making last-minute trips to check in with players around the country. In truth, the training and how it is handled is less of a concern for teams now than it will be later.
"[Players] aren't going to adjust what they would normally do in July and August," one of the GMs said. "Where it really gets tricky is when October has come and gone, and then it's a matter of 'How hard do I push it? Am I going to do two-a-days in October when we might not start until January? Do I take my foot off the gas, then I get a phone call and camp starts in a week and I'm not where I needed to be?'"
The players' inability to use team facilities is likely to be a boon for business at places like Impact Academy in Las Vegas, where trainer Joe Abunassar has already seen an increase in NBA clientele in recent months as the looming lockout neared. It's on the shortlist of hoops hubs that will now be called home for so many players, joining Tim Grover's facility in Chicago and the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Some agents with a longer list of clients have partnerships that will come in handy now, such as Mark Bartelstein with trainer Don Maclean at the 360 Health Club outside Los Angeles and Arn Tellem with trainer Rob McClanaghan in Santa Monica. But numerous front-office sources who spoke to SI.com for this story were skeptical that players would be disciplined enough to stay in shape throughout a prolonged lockout.
"We're making sure our guys are set up in their workout programs, that they're prepared to be working on their games and improving their bodies," Bartelstein said. "And then we'll look at other opportunities that we think could come up for players, whether it's playing in exhibition games, traveling abroad. There are all kinds of things that could be coming down the road."
There will be plenty of time to pursue such ideas -- especially considering the monumental gap that must be bridged between the two sides. Most players don't start missing checks until November because of the pay schedule, leading to an assumption that the pressure to get a deal done won't truly increase until then.
"If the league is going to take the position that they're currently taking, it's going to be a long [lockout]," Bartelstein said. "It's very Draconian. That's the only way to describe it. When you're doing a deal, you know when someone wants to make a deal or doesn't want to make a deal. And it's hard to feel any comfort that the league is really interested in making a deal at this point.
"The players' association made a heck of a move to go from 57 to 54 percent [on basketball-related income being paid to players in a recent proposal]. That was an unbelievable gesture that actually surprised me. And for the league to say that they made a modest proposal tells you everything you need to know right there."