Sitting it out: The cruelest cut of all

Updated: May 9, 2007, 3:05 PM ET
ESPN The Magazine

What's worse than not making the playoffs?

How about winning over 80 percent of your regular-season games, then getting thrown off your horse by a team that snuck into the postseason on the last day? The Mavericks have begun their summer vacation seven weeks earlier than they -- and most of the free world -- thought they would, courtesy of some high-flying, big-shot folks from the Bay Area.

More than 500 NBA and NHL players didn't make the playoffs. In its "Sitting It Out" feature, ESPN The Magazine talked to some of them to find out what life is like when there's no work in April.

• For any nine-to-fiver, a two-month vacation sounds sweet. But if you work for an NBA or NHL team, a mid-April layoff can be a horrible fate.
Berra: Sitting it out

• Missing the playoffs is bad enough. Worse? Watching them from a recovery room. Here are surgery dates -- and likely recovery times -- for some of your favorite patients.
Bedside views: NBA | NHL

• With plenty of time on their hands, players find all sorts of ways to keep busy. Some, not so good.
The cruelest cut of all: NBA | NHL

And what is that like?

"It just feels so empty," says Dirk Nowitzki, who came up small (two of 13 shots for eight points) in another finale.

Despite the spectacular ousting, though, don't look for any sudden movements in Big D.

"We need some time before we start to think about what this team needs," Dirk says.

While he's in no mood to talk about offseason plans, if the past is an indicator, Nowitzki will hang out for a couple of weeks, decompressing after the long haul, before getting right back to the gym. And there's no reason to believe that he won't be suiting up for Germany in the Olympic qualifiers this summer.

A quick bump off the ice has the same sting.

"It throws you," admits Martin St. Louis, the Tampa Bay wing whose team was bounced by New Jersey in the first round. "For eight months you have a schedule, and then -- bam! There's nothing set, nobody is telling you what to do. It takes a couple of days to get used to it. After that, if you know you gave everything you had and it didn't happen, you can move on."

Having a diversion helps.

"It's a little easier if you have kids," St. Louis says. "They don't really understand it. They're just happy to have Dad around."

Meanwhile, back in Dallas, Mavs forward Josh Howard had a birthday bash thrown for him at a local hot spot, the Empire Room, two nights after he was sent packing. Teammates Devin Harris, Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop were among the hosts.

Yes, life does go on.

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Sideline interests
With plenty of time on their hands, players find all sorts of ways to keep busy. Some, not so good.

Working overtime
• Jamal Mayers, Bryce Salvador (St. Louis Blues): Both native Canadians consider themselves permanent St. Louisans. Looking to establish roots -- personal and financial -- in their adopted hometown, they started the Hockey Academy of St. Louis. The 6,000-square-foot facility offers high-tech drills and NHL-caliber coaching.

The do-gooders
• Andrew Ference put his unwanted spring vacation to good use. On April 23, the Bruins defenseman was in Calgary with Al Gore for a live version of the ex-veep's global warming warning, "An Inconvenient Truth." Ference, who'll meet with Gore one-on-one later this year, turned green a year and a half ago, when he learned that Wayne Gretzky's hometown has become too warm for the backyard rink where The Great One started. Ference has since switched to hybrid cars, reusable shopping bags, energy-efficient light bulbs and wind power at home. "Athletes have a captive audience," he says. "We set an example."

Another postseason-challenged pro trying to fix the world this spring? Blues goalie Manny Legace, who is repairing houses for low-income St. Louis families.

Court time
• Another bummer about missing the playoffs? Losing those convenient continuances. One of the jock-related legal proceedings playing out this postseason involves Panthers goalie Ed Belfour, who was charged with disorderly intoxication and resisting arrest without violence after an April 9 tussle at a Miami bar. He'll join teammate Ville Peltonen (criminal mischief) at a May 9 hearing.