The dynamic between college basketball and the NBA is usually simple: College programs groom exceptional young talent that the NBA then takes away. But in this locked-out NBA season the professional ranks are giving back. Even if the stalemate were to end tomorrow—before ESPN's college lineup gets to experience the kind of ratings boost (22%!) it enjoyed during the last lockout, in 1998--99—the college game has benefited from the pro game's absence.
Consider: Thanks to exhibition games, charity events and Midnight Madness appearances by pros, fans in certain academic outposts have seen a level of player they don't often get to. On Sept. 22 national player of the year and Sacramento lottery pick Jimmer Fredette of BYU hosted an exhibition game in Provo between two teams of NBA rookies, and on Oct. 24, Lexington was the site of the Big Blue All-Stars vs. Villains charity game between such former Kentucky stars as Rajon Rondo and Jodie Meeks and a team of former rivals, including North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Louisville's Terrence Williams.
Marketing departments also are reaping benefits from the lockout. Last month Washington talked otherwise idle former Husky Spencer Hawes, a fifth-year center for the 76ers, and Isaiah Thomas, who was drafted by the Kings in June, into taping rousers—the "Let's get loud and cheer" video clips teams show on the scoreboard during games—that will play at home this season.
But the lockout's biggest beneficiaries may be the players at schools to which former-collegians-gone-pro have returned. From Westwood to Durham, pros such as Kevin Love, Rondo and Kyrie Irving are lugging backpacks, dodging bikes and attending classes, as well as training in their old gyms. Golden State guard Stephen Curry, who left Davidson in 2009, a year shy of his degree in sociology, is back working on his senior thesis: how tattoos affect athletes' images.
"The one message all the guys who have come back have sent to our players loud and clear is the importance of an education," says Texas coach Rick Barnes, who has two former Longhorns serving as student assistants: Tristan Thompson, a freshman forward on last year's squad who was drafted fourth overall by Cleveland, and 29-year-old Royal Ivey, a reserve guard for Oklahoma City who completed his eligibility 33 units shy of a degree in early childhood education. Ivey had knocked off all but nine of those credits in summer sessions and, with the lockout threatening to drag on, he enrolled in his three final classes this fall. "You hear [the NBA players] talk to our guys, they all say, 'Don't mess around right now,' " says Barnes. " 'Understand that one day it's going to be over with, so get your education.'"
Even those pros who are on campus just to use the training facilities are having an impact on college players. Tarik Black, a 6'8" sophomore forward at Memphis, has seen up close the work habits of Grizzlies such as Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, who have passed through the school's Finch Center the past few months. "Those guys motivate us, and they don't even know it," says Black. "Zach Randolph just walked by a second ago. He's one of the best power forwards in the league. He talks to me every day, and I get to see how hard he works and how he gets better. It's a blessing."
Black is doubly blessed, then, because the Tigers' frontline coach this season is Lakers forward Luke Walton, who was hired as an assistant by coach Josh Pastner for the duration of the lockout. Between his own workouts at the Finch Center, Walton is experiencing the full range of assistant duties, including recruiting and schooling young bigs like Black on their post footwork. "The days as a coach are a lot longer than the days as a player," says Walton, 31, "but I love it. I love working with the kids."
So does Ivey, who mentors the Texas guards. He has tutored freshman Myck Kabongo on defense and pushed junior J'Covan Brown to be more aggressive on offense. "He says I can't take plays off, and he's right," says Brown, who takes a class with Ivey and eats lunch with him every day. "Hearing that from a pro athlete, that's motivation."
Like other NBA players, Ivey is eager for labor talks to end and play to begin. Meanwhile, he says, "the lockout has been a blessing in disguise for me. It has given me a chance to finish my degree and learn a different craft. I think coaching is my calling."
If Ivey and Walton decide coaching is in their future—and if closer bonds are formed between NBA players and their college counterparts—the lockout could be a gift to colleges that keeps on giving.