The numbing language of labor war is upon us again, causing eyes to glaze over as the public's disgust gives way to boredom. The NBA owners' lockout of the players on July 1 not only caused all activity to cease—there can be no trades, player signings, NBA-sanctioned summer leagues or contact between players and team representatives—but also guaranteed that the only news traveling through the off-season grapevine will involve gross revenues, distribution of merchandising income and similarly stimulating topics.
For the moment the NBA is little more than a list of issues on a legal pad. Foremost among them is the salary cap, from which the owners want to eliminate all loopholes, especially the Larry Bird exception, which allows teams to re-sign their own free agents for any amount, regardless of their cap space. The rule has driven contracts for some stars, such as the Washington Wizards' Juwan Howard and the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning, past $100 million, and the owners say several of the league's 29 teams will be on the road to financial ruin if such salaries continue to proliferate. The National Basketball Players Association argues that the league's revenues are still growing—exhibit A is the NBAs four-year, $2.6 billion television contract (with NBC and Turner Sports), which goes into effect next season—and that players are simply being paid what the market will bear. Also at issue is the rookie salary scale, which includes a provision that allows first-round draft picks to become free agents after three seasons. The owners want to lengthen that amount of time; the players' association doesn't.
The bottom line is that the players and the owners can't agree on how to divide the spoils of their $1.7 billion-per-year operation. The only thing they seem to agree on is that there is no reason to believe that the dispute will be resolved before training camps are scheduled to open in October. As usual in sports work stoppages, it's nearly impossible to root for either side. The NBA owners control franchises worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and the players, with an average salary of $2.6 million, aren't exactly factory workers fighting to make a living wage.
But there are far more than two angles from which to view the lockout. There is the vantage point of a veteran role player whose career is at a crossroads, or a general manager who can't implement his master plan, or a fan who can't understand why the only item in this dispute that isn't considered locked is his wallet. Look beyond the rhetoric and the financial projections, and you will find that there are dozens of personal lockout stories. Here are six of them.
Nazr Mohammed would have a hard time proving that he is a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. He has a cap and a few T-shirts and pairs of shorts bearing the team logo, but there are 12-year-olds in Philly with more Sixers gear than that. The only thing that really connects Mohammed to his new team is the workout program that the 76ers' sent him after Mohammed was traded to Philadelphia by the Utah Jazz, which had selected him with the last pick of the NBA draft's first round. Shortly after the draft, Mohammed had visited the Sixers' offices. When he left, Mohammed was on his own.
Well, maybe he's not completely on his own. The 20-year-old Mohammed, a 6' 10", 240-pound center, is prohibited from having contact with anyone in the Sixers organization during the lockout, but he does have the help of the coaching and weight-training staff at Kentucky, where he was a member of last season's national champions and where he is doing the bulk of his summer conditioning work. But the main NBA tutoring Mohammed gets is in campus pickup games with other former Wildcats stars such as Kenny Walker.
"It's strange, not being able to work with the coaches," Mohammed says. "One of the reasons I was excited about going to Philadelphia was that [Sixers coach] Larry Brown is supposed to be a great teacher, and now he can't teach me. Right now I'm in limbo, but I know if I keep lifting, running, getting some shots up, I'll be ready when the time comes."
When the time comes, however, rookies such as Mohammed could be at a major disadvantage. Mohammed is missing the chance to play under the direction of the Sixers staff in NBA-sanctioned summer leagues, and if the lockout extends into the fall or beyond, he may have only a shortened preseason camp to adjust to life in the NBA and compete for a roster spot.
That is regrettable, because Mohammed has proved that he develops quickly with the right instruction. When he arrived at Kentucky as a freshman, he was a pillowysoft 290 pounds, with 23% body fat. But under the direction of Wildcats coach Rick Pitino and his staff, Mohammed trimmed down to 240 and 12%, and turned himself into an NBA prospect.