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Sports

November 28, 2011

On the NBA Lockout Beat

ESPN blogger Henry Abbott mastered CBA, BRI, and hotel hallways. Now he's ready to get back to NBA games.

David Goldenberg

Imagine if your butcher's job description suddenly required him to speculate on pork-belly futures. That's pretty much the position that Henry Abbot, the founder and lead writer for ESPN's TrueHoop Network, found himself in as the NBA's labor dispute turned into an extended lockout. Instead of simply covering basketball, Abbott has spent the last few months reporting on the machinations of the lawyers, agents, and various representatives as both sides of the player/owner chasm. But more than his fellow writers, Abbott was well-positioned for this change. TrueHoop has been documenting the ins and outs of the non-basketball aspects of the NBA since well before the lockout; Abbott's ability to cover both the sport and its place in our culture is how he attracted his national audience (and earned the interest of his (no longer quite so new) bosses at ESPN) in the first place. Even though he's able to handle the new reality of his job, though, Abbott isn't necessarily thrilled. "Fun though it was to have a businessy change of pace," he says, "let's get back to basketball already."

Henry Abbott. Photo by Gelf Magazine of Henry's appearance at the fifth anniversary Varsity Letters event in Feb. 2011.
"The owners got their money, but they may have lost the players' enthusiasm."

Henry Abbott. Photo by Gelf Magazine of Henry's appearance at the fifth anniversary Varsity Letters event in Feb. 2011.

He may be getting his wish; the parties have come to an agreement that will save the season. Assuming a majority of the players approve of the new deal, they'll play meaningful games before the end of the year. In the following interview, Abbott tells Gelf how the lockout affected TrueHoop, which players would have thrived and faltered had the lockout lasted longer, and how the labor dispute let him get a look inside the previously guarded fortress of the NBA PR machine. (Most of this interview was conducted before the agreement was struck on Saturday; it was edited for clarity.)

Gelf Magazine: Will player/owner relations go back to being the same as they used to be before the offseason? Should they be the same?

Henry Abbott: The police weren't called, but this was still the fight that the neighbors heard. Everyone might be a little ashamed for a while after that one.
Also, I've heard that many players will be reticent to make appearances as the public faces of owners and teams. The owners got their money, but they may have lost the players' enthusiasm. Watch for that.
All that said, the fight's over now. Look on Twitter and you'll see players who sound incredibly happy. Many will forget.

Gelf Magazine: It doesn't look like the new deal is that much different from what was on the table previously. Did the players just capitulate?

Henry Abbott: The players did a hell of a lot of capitulating to get to that 50/50 fight. From there, though, it was a fight over details, which it sounds like they essentially split.

Gelf Magazine: How has the lockout affected TrueHoop?

Henry Abbott: TrueHoop is a lot more than me, with all the contributors and the TrueHoop Network. But for my part, it has been busy as hell. I have been one of those guys stalking the lobbies of the talks, which means some really long hours, considering I have, in addition, been trying to keep up with some semblance of my day job. Over the same period I also trained for a marathon, rehabbed an injury, and continue to have two young children.
Many NBA people have been saying things to me like: Are you enjoying all your down time? 'Cause they are, you know?
I struggle to respond to that question with humor and grace.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have lots of ideas for filling space as it drags on? Does it give you some freedom to do more creative and fun things, some breathing room?

Henry Abbott: That would make sense. In reality, whereas I used to fill my days with whimsy and found objects, now huge swaths of time are dedicated to straightforward newsy tasks like trying to muster the best sources possible to figure out exactly what Jeffrey Kessler said in the hallway of the Palace Hotel three months ago.

Gelf Magazine: Is it fun to report on the lockout? Do you feel like you're able to transition from basketball to labor disputes without too much trouble?

Henry Abbott: A big part of what drives my work is trying to understand what really happens, as opposed to just the theater of it all. This has been a giant crack in the united PR front of the NBA. It has been thrilling, in a way, to get a heavy peek into how this league really works.
However, to be honest, the bloom is just about all the way off that rose. Fun though it was to have a businessy change of pace, let's get back to basketball already. The business part was fun for a while, and we all learned a lot about BRI. Now it's just boring.

Gelf Magazine: Which players and teams are most hurt by the lockout?

Henry Abbott: Rookies, whose incomeless lives are on hold. Marginal players overseas who have lost their roster spots to moonlighting NBA players. Anyone due to be a free agent soon, who will suffer from the new CBA. And most of all, whoever spends the lockout at Cinnabon.

Gelf Magazine: Which players are most likely to get Cinnaboned?

Henry Abbott: Early in the summer the money was on new Blazer Raymond Felton, who showed up a little round in some early summer games. As the summer turns into fall, another candidate is the guy he was traded for, Andre Miller, who has admitted that his offseason regimen involves little exercising and lots of bad food.
Also worth noting: But for a one-game suspension for body-slamming Blake Griffin, Miller is the NBA's reigning iron man—he essentially never gets injured.

Gelf Magazine: Let's assume the lockout had lasted more than one season. Which players would be best at taking up second careers in each of the following: football, baseball, hockey, tennis, golf, acting, music, business, public speaking, politics?

Henry Abbott: Football: LeBron James and it's not close. The physical gifts that make him the best player in basketball are arguable more useful in the NFL.

Baseball: I once saw Allen Iverson hit an inside-the-park home run at a charity softball game.

Hockey: Steve Nash has the best hand-eye coordination in the league, and is both a multi-sport marvel and a Canuck. If you had soccer in this list, he'd top that, too…he's nearly professional-grade with his feet.

Tennis: I love this tale of Connie Hawkins doing his thing in Fort Greene. I've heard Dirk Nowitzki fills a similar role in his summers in Germany.

Golf: You hear a lot of stories about NBA players playing golf. Trying to think if I've heard stories about NBA players playing golf well.

Acting: Luke Walton was on a soap opera once. It would be a crime to invite him back. Blake Griffin, though…he has real comedic timing and poise.

Music: Ron Artest's daughter.

Business: LeBron James has equity in almost everything he touches and Warren Buffett on speed-dial. Not a bad start.

Public speaking: Matt Bonner is a natural. After a charity game, unscripted, he says things like, "I dunked on a girl, I got beat in a three-point contest by a musician, and complained about a call—which I didn't think I'd do in a charity game."

Politics: They used to call Shane Battier "the senator," and he sure has the brains, the spirit, and the plastic smile for the camera. But I wonder if he has an appetite for the gruesome underbelly of all that. If he did…where the hell has he been through this lockout?

Gelf Magazine: Is there anything the players could have done in terms of organizing non-NBA games or playing overseas that would legitimately scare the owners or better their position at the bargaining table?

Henry Abbott: If 10 of the 20 best players in the NBA were all overseas, things would get interesting. They'd be driving big revenue streams, filling big stadiums, selling tons of jerseys (and keeping a far greater cut than the NBA would ever allow them), and devaluing their franchises back home. They'd also be bonding with a market for a lifetime. For instance, if China fell head over heels for Kevin Durant, he'd always have that to fall back on, shattering the idea that all good income comes in conjunction with David Stern.
Somebody is really going to figure out how to globalize the NBA, and if the league is out of business, it might be the players.
The same superstars might also be able to put something together that would make some noise on American TV. But I don't think any non-NBA entity will compete with the NBA in the stadium-revenues game. NBA owners have enjoyed close to $20 billion in public subsidies for those buildings—that's about five years of NBA revenues, essentially for free. You can't compete paying market rents. In other words, you might make some money barnstorming, but not nearly as much as the NBA owners can pay even when they're driving a hard bargain.
The other thing NBA players can do is cover each other's bills, to make sure the lockout doesn't put people into the kind of financial stress that could leave to capitulation.

Gelf Magazine: Which teams are going to benefit from the shortened season?

Henry Abbott: Old cunning ones. The Lakers and the Spurs have long been practicing playing hard about 66 games a year.

Front-page image of DeMar DeRozan and Gary Neal courtesy of GAMEFACE-PHOTOS's flickr via Creative Commons.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.







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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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