Little charity for NBA players At poorly attended fund-raising game, fans speak against lockout

December 20, 1998

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- In all, the NBA lockout is approaching its sixth month and has cost basketball fans nearly two months of the regular season. So to satisfy their competitive juices -- and bring light to their cause -- 16 of the NBA's biggest names played an exhibition here last night before bright television lights and hundreds of media members.

So how did the people in this casino town react to "The Game on Showtime?"

"I don't give a rat's butt about this," answered David Priest, who lives 10 minutes away in Margate.

"Even if someone gave me a ticket, I wouldn't go," said Cecil Bryan, of nearby Cape May.

As it turned out, 9,526 did go, and they saw Tim Hardaway score 33 points and earn MVP honors in helping the Red team erase a 17-point deficit to beat the White team, 125-119, at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Convention Hall.

"The Game" was a joint effort of several NBA agents and Showtime, put together in a short period of time to satisfy the public's craving for the professional basketball that's been absent because players and owners can't decide how to divide $2 billion a year. All of the proceeds went to charities both local and in Philadelphia, site of the recently canceled 1999 All-Star Game.

Surprisingly "The Game" -- featuring a team of older players against some of the games younger stars -- was played with defensive intensity at the start. In the opening minutes players actually challenged inside shots, which is almost unheard of during All-Star games.

"I thought it was better than the All-Star game," said Alonzo Mourning, who scored 25 points. "Guys played hard, guys really came out and gave a great effort."

Early observations: Dominique Wilkins, launching shots at will throughout the evening, appeared in midseason form. Charlotte Hornets forward Anthony Mason is in need of a fashion consultant, after showing up with a hooded black fur with his number "14" in white letters on the back.

Most of the players appeared relatively fit, considering most haven't played since April. But Shawn Kemp appeared very overweight.

As for the play, the players appeared as if they were trying to hold up their end when they promised to put on a good show.

"The message to the fans is that the players did this for them," said agent David Falk. "The players played for free and really enjoyed being out there."

Said the White team's Tom Gugliotta: "The guys were excited before the game and everyone had butterflies. We all miss this. We hope to get back on the court soon."

The initial plans were for the game's proceeds to go to needy players, conjuring up images of some of your favorite stars standing on street corners holding up "Will work for lobster" signs. Perhaps that's the reason a lot of people didn't much care about the game, if they knew about it at all. The Atlantic City Press reported that as of Thursday, less than 600 of 12,500 available tickets had been sold to the event. A spokesman for the convention center said 9,500 tickets had been sold and 500 given away.

"You look at Shaq [Shaquille O'Neal] making $125 million seven years, and then there isn't enough money to put people to work -- the priorities in this country are warped," said Fernando Tapia, a New Yorker who was here for the weekend with his family. "And then the owners have created this situation. If one owner doesn't pay a player the big money, another one will.

"The players and the owners, unfortunately, have been feeding off the same trough -- the trough of the fan," Tapia added. "I'm a big basketball fan -- well, I was. I'm not anymore."

Priest said he returned to watching baseball only this season after being turned off by that game's work stoppage. He's equally disgusted by the current lockout, calling NBA players "a bunch of greedy individuals.

"They're getting more than they deserve," said Priest, who hadn't even heard about last night's game until two days before. "It doesn't seem anybody's in it for the love of the game anymore. Everybody's in it for the money."

And while everyone speaks about the money lost to the players during the lockout, there are others that are affected as well. Down the street from the arena, several establishments that sell sporting goods said their business has suffered.

"Outside of the [Michael] Jordans, shoe sales are down because the kids aren't seeing these guys play," said Eric Rager, a salesman at Foot Locker. "With this game going on, I thought our business would be jamming. But it's not, and I'm not sure what's going on. It doesn't seem like anybody's really interested."

The one place where there appeared to be a buzz about the game was at the Sports Collection, an apparel and memorabilia shop.

"People have come in wanting to buy pictures or jerseys to get them signed if they see the players," said manager Dee Harjani. "It's been the talk all this week."

Harjani offered a somewhat sympathetic view to the plight of the players.

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