WASHINGTON -- America's perception of basketball has been tainted. It's not really up for debate. Since the NBA Finals concluded in June, the league has seemingly floundered in its own ineptitude, content with the lack of CBA negotiations. Commissioner David Stern appears fed up with the endless lockout questions he's had to face. Players have considered moving to Turkey, Russia or elsewhere. For fans, it's largely been a two-month exercise in frustration.
Saturday's exhibition, dubbed Capital Punishment, between the Los Angeles-based Drew League and Washington, D.C.'s Goodman League, provided a refreshing change of pace. It reminded us exactly why basketball is so beloved to begin with.
"It's just a blessing we can get all these guys in one gym," said Kevin Durant, Goodman League's best player. "It's an honor."
The scene was far removed from anything NBA fans are accustomed to: no JumboTrons, aisle vendors or halftime gimmicks. A far beyond capacity crowd packed into the tiny, fluorescently lit gymnasium at Trinity University in D.C., a venue typically reserved for Division III Independent women's league contests. But two teams laden with professionals took to the court. Our hunger for the sport -- at least temporarily -- was satisfied.
Goodman triumphed 135-134 in a game that was terrific from the onset. Boasting a lineup that featured Durant, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Goodman raced to an early lead behind a barrage of explosive alley-oops and stop-and-pop threes. Drew, featuring Brandon Jennings, James Harden, JaVale McGee and DeMar DeRozan, roared back after a run of breakaway layups and thunderous dunks in the third quarter. There was little defense, but an abundance of scoring: Durant finished with 44, Jennings with 34, Harden with 29 and Wall with 28.
There was also no shortage of drama. As the game ticked to its final seconds, with Jennings and Harden hoisting up failed game-winners as time expired, the atmosphere was reminiscent of a playoff game. In many respects, it was more intense.
"You have to understand, these are guys that love basketball and want to win," Wall said. "It's for bragging rights."
That type of attitude has been pervasive in recent weeks, with summer ball serving as an outlet for many of the league's best. Durant electrified New York City's Rucker Park by exploding for 66 points on Aug. 2. Kobe Bryant wowed Drew League faithful by icing a game-winner over Harden on Aug. 16. On Saturday, the usual suspects were at it again. They also hinted they aren't finished. A rematch may be in the making come September or October.
"They won by one point on some questionable calls," Harden said. "We have to get this going in L.A. in a couple of weeks."
The prospect, while enticing, also prompts a number of questions. What should fans make of the streetball phenomenon? Is it a fill-in of sorts, a placeholder until the NBA resolves its labor issues? Or is the uptake in popularity something more meaningful, a potential long-term basketball solution?
"People are thirsty for basketball," Drew League commissioner Dino Smiley said. "This is the purest form of basketball we have."
As the lockout drags on, each league's future grows, and both have plans to bolster their newfound publicity. In addition to the rematch, Smiley said he'd consider games against Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco area squads. Miles Rawls, the Goodman League commissioner, said he hopes to schedule a game in Seattle.
"Who knows?" Rawls offered after the game. "After they see this, everybody will be calling."
Players are more skeptical. Once the league resumes -- whenever that may be -- they'll be subject to an array of mandatory camps and training sessions. It casts doubt on summer leagues' long-term potential.
"I think we'll play but I don't think we'll play as many games as we did," Wall said. "Most of us have nothing else to do."
Perhaps then it's simply a means for players to stay fresh without top-flight facilities or NBA-level coaching. The game offered worthy competition, something sorely lacking elsewhere in the basketball realm. Additional participants in Saturday's exhibition included Josh Selby, Gary Neal, Ty Lawson and Craig Smith, while others, such as Michael Beasley and Nick Young -- a last-minute scratch -- have played in various summer showcases.
"You get to go out and play against guys who are just as good as you," Neal said. "We just have to wait the lockout out and try to stay ready and stay in shape."
More than anything, though, the game needs to be internalized for what it was: a way for players to connect with fans in a post-lockout world. It allowed fans to witness world-class basketball, a luxury many could never afford to see otherwise.
"The most important thing is going to neighborhoods with kids and families that might not get a chance to see an NBA game," Wall said. "That's just giving back. That's the best thing about it."
The game didn't provide the pressure-packed theater of Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs storming to the title. There were no playoff, All-Star or even statistical implications. Whether this prompts an increased streetball trend, while intriguing, is probably doubtful.
But that's not really the point. This was quality basketball being played for quality basketball's sake. The players paid their own travel expenses, and put on a show -- replete with last-minute theatrics -- that was unmistakably entertaining. Quite possibly, it might be the last time that's available for a long, long while.
No one covets that more than Durant. The humble star has been the lockout's ringleader, and the game wouldn't have happened without his influence ("A guy like Kevin Durant, he can get on the phone and call anybody," Neal said). He's taken steps to renew our faith in the game, to help us forget the tiresome business-related issues that have dominated recent headlines.
"The guys that came before me left the game in a good place, he said. "I want to leave it in a better place."
If nothing else, that's exactly what Saturday's showcase accomplished. It offered top-notch basketball. For once, that in itself was enough.
"I just want to show people how much I love the game," he said. "Hopefully it rubs off on them."