Hoops will live if NBA season doesn't

9/25/2011 - NBA

At this moment there is quarter-sized bump on the right side of my forehead courtesy of an errant elbow during a lunchtime pickup game of basketball.

I wanted the rebound, and obviously I wasn't the only one.

I didn't call foul because, well, I was too busy rolling around on the ground. Besides, when I finally got up, I was told I was hit by my own teammate.

All I could do was laugh, thinking: "I am living."

This is why I feel a bit ambivalent when I hear that the NBA season may not start on time. I love the league, but I won't be devastated if the entire season is lost. It's a business. A business that only represents part of the story of basketball. The lump on my head epitomizes the rest.

When you grow up shoveling snow off the courts so you can get a run or two in during winter break the way my boys and I did in Detroit, you know that ball can't be contained by 30 teams, 82 games or a salary cap. If the players and owners can't find a way to bridge their $800 million gap -- fine. But they can't take the ball and go home. The ball stays right here, with me, in my heart. The love for ball will be here when negotiators leave the table, and it'll be there when they come back.

I don't mean to downplay the effects of a lost season.

For any major league, the cancellation of a season warps history, changing things such as a player's ability to climb the ranks in career statistics like points scored or games played. It also hits the industry that is built around the training camps, preseason games and memorabilia. It cuts into the bottom lines of restaurants, bars and businesses near arenas. It hits broadcasters like ESPN and TNT that have invested millions in talent, studio sets and rights. Fans who play the fantasy edition of the game will have to find a new hobby. And yes-men will have to make decisions on their own … for a short while, anyway.

A canceled NBA season may turn people off from professional basketball. The 1998-99 lockout resulted in a shortened season and subsequent drops in TV ratings and ticket sales. But I will dare say, it did not touch the love that people had for the game itself.

Not when men in their 40s and 50s are getting out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to get a couple of hours of run in before work because it is the only time their schedule will allow. Not when virtually the entire population of small towns all over the country cram into a gymnasium for a high school game, or when every eye in a big-city barbershop is fixated on a rebroadcast game most of the customers have already seen 100 times. Think of it this way: You don't stop listening to music because R.E.M. broke up. Instead you just play "Automatic for the People" and keep it moving. Similarly, classic games will be treated like those classic CDs -- even if the source that created those classics is no longer playing arenas night after night.

I can close my eyes and see Maryland's Kristi Toliver crossing over Duke's Alison Bales before hitting the step-back 3 that forced overtime in the 2006 NCAA championship game, a game Maryland eventually won. I still can hear the inquisitive whispers in the crowd during a summer tournament game in Indianapolis that featured Kevin Durant before his senior year of high school.

I still can feel the passing air coming from my 14-year-old son's hand as he got thisclose to actually blocking my shot. We both paused for a moment, realizing that neither one of us was jumping the way we used to.

Those memories are not special because of the NBA.

They are special because unlike football or baseball or hockey, basketball is the only team sport that doesn't require a specific place to play or a lot of people to enjoy. Some of the best times of my life came from shooting Nerf hoops with my buddies in the dorm my freshman year in college. When you've experienced that kind of communal laughter and joy from a round sponge and a piece of plastic stuck on the wall, you've experienced the game of basketball in a way that squabbling millionaires and billionaires can hardly touch.

Do I hope to see players like Dirk and D12 back on the court?


But the WNBA is in the middle of its playoffs, Euroleague Basketball starts next month, and I can watch the prime-time games of the inaugural Battle 4 Atlantis in November and March Madness and the alternative CBI tournament in March. Plus I can watch as many YouTube clips of Durant or John Wall going off during summer rec league games as I want, or I can go down to a local gym and get hit in the head with an elbow.

The point is we may not, I may not, have the NBA right now.

We may not have it next week.

But when you love the game, there's always ball. We don't need a collective bargaining agreement for that.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.