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A league of their own? One man's plan to put idled players to work

LOS ANGELES -- One day before NBA commissioner David Stern would square off against his players and their representatives inside a posh New York hotel, there was a labor meeting of a very different kind taking place on an inner city sidewalk way out West.

That's where Fred Smith was making his pitch to the latest player, selling him on the concept of investing in a venture that might help him endure the lockout. Smith is a staple in these parts, a longtime television cameraman and producer who chronicled the early days of Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson's most memorable moment and thousands of others in this city. But now Smith is angling for a very different shot: a domestic, player-led exhibition tour that could possibly evolve into a league of their own.

Smith -- who suddenly finds himself playing the Adam Silver to Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley's David Stern -- spent much of Sunday trying to convince NBA players that it's time for them to step up in this endeavor.

Talk of an Aug. 20 All-Star exhibition between L.A.'s Drew League and the Washington, D.C.-based Goodman League in the nation's capital has been a sorely needed reason for excitement for the most hardcore of hoops fans, but logistical challenges that Smith says are related to the NBA's labor situation have made this a harder sell than he ever imagined.

As Smith sees it, numerous television networks are bypassing the opportunity for fear of jeopardizing their current agreements with the NBA. While Smiley and Smith were hoping to have the airfare, transportation and housing covered for NBA and non-NBA players alike, the lack of a media partner has left them scrambling for sponsors and faced with the possibility of having to use private loans to ensure the game happens.

Smith is using this media lockout of sorts as a rallying cry for the players who plan to participate. The message: Help us get this one game off the ground, and watch it grow from there.

"I try to explain to these players, 'Why do you think ... that ESPN, Fox, TNT -- for the most part -- haven't been knocking down your door to talk to you, haven't been looking to do interviews with you? Because they're partners with the NBA. They're management. You're labor. They're not going to come talk to you. You're on your own,' " said Smith, who was on the production team for CBS' NBA telecasts in the 1980s and '90s, was a field producer for NBA Entertainment in the '90s and frequently freelances with ESPN now.

"And I'm telling them, 'You have a chance to take control of your life a little bit here.' We're not going to replace the NBA. ... But I'm showing them how if you get on board this thing now, and get your fans on board, you could very easily create a second revenue stream for yourself in the summer, if not beyond."

Smith, who connected with Smiley while doing a documentary on Los Angeles legend Raymond Lewis in the late 1980s, had big plans even before the lockout. He intended to launch The Basketball Channel as either a television network or online outlet next summer, showcasing the men's and women's game on every level "24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," as the promise goes on the channel's website.

But the lockout has prompted Smith to launch TheBasketballChannel.net now, and discussions with Ustream to air the Drew-Goodman game have given way to a plan to show it on his website for $4.95 per viewing. Yet while so many NBA players have been landing big paydays for exhibition games overseas or even signing contracts with international teams, the labor landscape on the home front means this must be a much different business format.

Smith isn't afraid to employ a scare tactic to help ensure that these NBA players who mostly hail from Los Angeles will be there.

"The bottom line is," Smith said, "I just told [the Raptors'] DeMar [DeRozan], I told [the Clippers'] Craig [Smith], and we're talking to [the Wizards'] Nick [Young], I said, 'Listen, for $3,000 we can get you to D.C., get you a ride, get you a nice room. You play this game, represent L.A., represent the Drew and support Dino -- one of the greatest guys I've ever met -- and be able to keep your head high and go back home.'

"'If you don't show up, your name is mud in this town. So for $3,000, put off buying the new rims for one week, spend $3,000 and help us do this thing in D.C. And if you do that, I think you're going to be at the ground floor of something that could be huge.' "

While Smith and every other NBA fan wishes the lockout would end, he's well aware that a prolonged work stoppage could be a boon for his new business.

"[The potential partners] are dying for programming, because all them and their regional affiliates are looking at a fall and winter with no basketball," Smith said. "So I'm saying, Initially, I might be able to get you a six-city tour. Starting in Washington, maybe a second game in L.A., third game in N.Y., fourth game in Philly, fifth game in Seattle, sixth game in San Francisco and those respective summer leagues [playing against the Drew League]. There are other cities on the table as well.

"As this whole lockout continues, I think the pressure is going to be on a lot of these broadcasters who are losing a ton of money in advertising by not carrying the NBA to provide some kind of basketball. And I think once mid-November hits and some of these guys start missing paychecks, they're going to want to figure out, 'Well, we need to settle this thing or find other ways to make some money.' "

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