Basketball: Rich entertainers' cheapest show in town

Gerard Wright visits the Los Angeles gym where the NBA `strikers' work out
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AT THE far end of the court, Mark Sanford, a centre for the Dallas Mavericks, dunks over Greg Ostertag, his counterpart from the Utah Jazz. Atmosphere laden with sweat, humidity and the constant dull percussion of a basketball bouncing on a wooden floor now resounds with the roars of triumph and acclaim from Sanford's team-mates.

It could be any NBA game, where the world's best athletes make the spectacular look merely routine, even as they constantly try to surpass themselves and each other. But this is not some giant arena with hundred- dollar seats and a megawatt sound system. This is an unnamed, unremarkable building on the campus of UCLA, alongside the John Wooden Centre, named after the university's fabled coach of the Sixties and Seventies, and, this being California, the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Centre.

Inside, basketballers of every size and possibility hurtle up and down, around and through each other on three adjoining courts. Among them are 15 to 20 NBA players, now technically unemployed, or at least without work, since what is known as The Lockout began on 1 July.

Lockout is another word for a strike, except in this case both sides have gone out. At issue, essentially, is what's known as The Larry Bird Exception, which allows teams to separate the payment for their best player from their salary cap, and the payment, in both amount and length of time, for newly recruited players.

Mark Sanford's manager has warned him that they may be out until December. Other managers are telling their players not to expect their 15 November cheque, which would otherwise be the payment for their first fortnight's work in a season originally scheduled to start on 1 November. Under the rules of engagement, contact between teams and players is forbidden: no contract negotiations, no medical treatment, and especially no supervised training.

Which is why this two-storey brick building with ivy growing on the walls is like having the Oscars staged at a suburban cinema. Earlier this week, Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons, once anointed the corporate if not commercial successor to Michael Jordan, was there, as was Kenny Anderson, the New York playground legend and problem child of the New Jersey Nets and Toronto Raptors.

On this afternoon, there's Jalem Rose of the Indiana Pacers in white, silken shorts that flop down past his knees. And Derek Fisher of the Lakers. And Don McLean, of the Washington Wizards. And Bo Outlaw, of Orlando. There are games running simultaneously on three courts, with players constantly being moved, apparently at random, from one court to another; a non- stop display of sleight-of-hand passing, levitation next to the basket, and moves with the ball that are like mercury sliding through a crack in a rock. It's a workplace like no other, except that nobody gets paid. "A lot of guys want to come in and just sharpen their tools," Sandford said. He described his pay as mid-range in the NBA. The average salary last season was $2.6m.

For every player like Sandford, a reserve centre for the Mavericks, or Rose, whose star moved into the ascendant last season in Indianapolis under the guidance of Larry Bird, there are a dozen or so who would take their place. For the aspirants such as Gregory Jefferson, about to take up a scholarship with the college powerhouse Michigan, there is an unwritten and unspoken etiquette which the novice in this company has to observe. "Call for it and keep calling. When you get the ball, don't always shoot it. Give it up [pass it]," he explained.

In this company, there can be no such thing as too much ambition, be it Sandford dunking over an opponent who competed in last season's NBA finals, or Ivan Garner, a second-year point guard at Portland State, who can suddenly see his career mapped out before him, and the human obstacles he must overcome. "More fun than college?" he repeated the question. "To play with these guys? Yeah. These guys are playing where I want to play. Yeah. It's fun."

All of this is seen and heard by no more than 60 people, leaning against the walls around the courts. It is the best and the cheapest show in town. Admission to the gym is free. The players seem to revel in the fact that this is much more play than work. A game that has become an arm of the entertainment industry has reasserted its independence and is a sport again, simultaneously expressed in both its highest and purest form.