Impact League offers 70-plus NBA players an unofficial home
LAS VEGAS -- Early Tuesday evening, in a dusty gym hundreds of miles from the nearest NBA arena, John Wall and Chauncey Billups went to work.
Wall, running the point on a team with Wizards teammates Rashard Lewis, JaVale McGee and Jordan Crawford, shredded the opposing defense for 47 points. Billups, captaining a team featuring Kenyon Martin, Roger Mason Jr. and Iman Shumpert, was even better, knocking down six three-pointers and finishing with 38 points in just three quarters. A tweaked ankle kept Billups on the sideline in the fourth, but it didn't keep his team from pulling out a 137-131 victory.
Welcome to NBA basketball, 2011. With the lockout keeping the doors to team facilities closed, more than 70 NBA players have chosen to make the Impact Basketball Academy their unofficial home. The program -- dubbed the Competitive Training Series -- is the brainchild of trainer Joe Abunassar, whose client list includes Kevin Garnett, Al Harrington, Billups, Rudy Gay, Jared Dudley and many others.
"Usually, after Labor Day, a lot of guys go back to their teams," Abunassar said. "But with the uncertainty of the lockout, we figured we would see if we could bring some guys in to get some good work in."
Days begin at 9 a.m., when Abunassar and his staff put players through a variety of strength and agility workouts. In the afternoons, Abunassar opens the doors to the public, who -- for $20 -- can watch six teams made up of mostly NBA players scrimmage.
Most of the players have been working out individually, usually with personal trainers at home. The lure of competing against top-level talent is what brought them to Las Vegas. The competition in games has been spirited: Damon Jones talked trash with Crawford. Mason Jr. shoved Wall from behind to stop a fast-break. When McGee missed a sweeping hook over Martin, Martin cursed at him and wondered why he was shooting like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"After a while, when you drill and train so much, you want to play," said Memphis guard O.J. Mayo. "You want to put your weapons together and see what's going on."
Abunassar has endeavored to give the camp a professional vibe. He recruited Nike to supply each player with uniforms. He spent $30,000 on security and a cleanup crew and added two athletic trainers to his staff. While attendance has been sparse -- games average around 75-100 fans per night -- Abunassar has been happy with the results.
"We're not judging the success by how many fans we get," Abunassar said. "The workouts are what our main focus is. They have been amazing. The games have been extra."
Billups agrees. "The workouts in the morning, guys go hard. And when we are all around each other, we can see if we're not working on our weaknesses and try and help each other."
Of course, Abunassar's "Lockout League" is not without problems. Many games are blowouts, which results in the second half turning into little more than a glorified pickup game. There is little passing -- if the nearby casinos listed the over/under for number of passes per possession, it would be 1 1/2 -- and even less defense.
Worse, no one can see it. The original plan was to broadcast the games on YouTube but escalating production costs -- between $70,000 and $100,000, according to Abunassar -- forced Abunassar to scrap it at the last minute.
"Everyone wanted the content," Abunassar said. "But we put this thing together so quickly, there just wasn't enough time to find ways to pay for it."
Most of the problems, Abunassar said, will be fixed in time for the next camp. He says resetting the score at halftime or playing a best-of-seven series to 15 -- which he does during his regular training sessions -- are options. Bringing in more NBA-experienced coaches or former players (nine-year veteran Jerome Williams was the unofficial coach of one team on Tuesday) is another. And Abunassar said that by the time the next camp starts, he will have enough money from sponsors to stream the games on the Internet.
And if the lockout drags on, there will be another camp. Abunassar said he would like to open the doors again in mid-October. In the meantime, he is hoping players will stay and continue to work out with the largest collection of NBA talent that has been assembled this summer.
"We have scoreboards and refs anyways, the only difference will be we won't open it up to the public," Abunassar said. "Guys like being in Vegas, they love the workouts in the morning and they like playing against NBA players. It works."
• Billups, last seen limping off the floor with a strained left knee in the closing minutes of Game 1 of the Knicks' first-round series against Boston, said his injury has completely healed.
"The knee is great, finally," Billups said. "I've been back on the court for [about] three weeks and I'm feeling good. I'm just working myself back in shape now."
The 2004 NBA Finals MVP with Detroit, Billups said not being able to play against the Celtics still bugs him.
"When I went down, I was still hoping I'd get back by the end of the series," Billups said. "I ended up being out for four months. "It was frustrating. I thought we could have pushed the Celtics. Hopefully, we get another chance."
• Another player reporting a clean bill of health is Gay, who has been on the sideline since undergoing surgery in March to repair a partially dislocated shoulder. Gay was cleared to play by his doctors on Tuesday. He looked predictably sluggish in his first scrimmage, often walking up and down the court and missing badly with a few jump shots.
"I felt really, really rusty," Gay said. "But that's what this is for. I really needed that first game. I felt what it was like to be on a team. Haven't been on one in seven months."
• Last season wasn't the easiest for Mayo. He was suspended for 10 games for violating the league's anti-drug program, lost his starting job, got into a fight with teammate Tony Allen on the team plane and was nearly traded at the deadline.
"I was talking to [Lakers forward] Derrick Caracter, who I've been playing against since seventh or eighth grade, and he was telling me how mentally it's so hard [to go from being] 'the man' to [having] to come in and fight just to get on the court," Mayo said. "To fight to get time in practice -- it was really different because I've always been a starter, always played a little freely. The guys, they always stayed around me, but it was tough. It was the most [difficult] thing ever. At one point I was like, 'Man do I still want to play this game?'
"At the same time, you have to keep fighting, work out every day before and after practice. Always got shots up with [assistant coach] Damon Stoudamire. It was awkward [with the Grizzlies] because, man, I go to work [wondering] 'Am I wanted, what's the deal?' But I was with the perfect team. I couldn't have been in a better place for that to happen."
Mayo credits assistant coach Johnny Davis for helping him get focused during Memphis' playoff run, when Mayo averaged 11.3 points and a team high 40.8 percent from three-point range.
"He is a great mentor of mine," Mayo said. "He really picked my spirit up. He told me the regular season is over with and I have an opportunity to change things around. He gave me a whole different focus coming into the postseason."
• Mayo, Take II: The Grizzlies' guard said he has been texting with teammate Marc Gasol about possibly playing together in Spain should the lockout wipe out all or part of the season.
• Surpisingly impressive player: Knicks rookie Shumpert, who showed off an NBA body along with a solid mid-range game and a few nice moves to the basket.
• Surprisingly unimpressive player: Sixers center Marreese Speights, who looked winded and a little lost on the floor on Tuesday.