SAN DIEGO -- Shannon Brown arrived at will call several hours before tipoff for Friday’s inaugural Carrier Classic between North Carolina and Michigan State and who was one of the first people he saw waiting in line?
Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.
“That was crazy,” Brown said, sharing the tale as he made his way through a throng of U.S. Navy men and women, pausing to take a photo with everyone who asked.
In just about any other year, Brown and Gilbert would have been natural allies entering the historical basketball game aboard the USS Vinson as fellow Michigan State alumni.
At just about any other time, two proud Spartans finding themselves some 2,000 miles away from East Lansing ready to watch their Green and White take on the No. 1 team in the country, would take comfort at the sight of one another.
But Friday they ignored the Spartan ties that bind them because of the NBA lockout line that currently has them pitted directly against one another.
Labor negotiations between the owner’s side and players’ union broke off once again Thursday and the fate of the 2011-12 NBA season hangs in the balance as the players are taking the weekend to regroup and consider the NBA’s offer that’s in their lap.
Sitting in the middle of it all on Friday was President Barack Obama in his front row seat at center court, taking in the game he loves.
While Obama’s appearance was more about supporting America’s troops than it was about fixing a basketball, he’s already expressed just how dire things are looking for the league.
“I'm concerned about [missing an entire NBA season],” Obama told Jay Leno recently. “They need to remind themselves that the reason they are so successful is because a whole bunch of folks out there love basketball.”
By letting the lockout reach an apparent impasse -- either the players accept the owner’s last-best offer, one that union head Billy Hunter described bluntly as “not the best offer in the world,” or choose decertification as their own last-best chance of ever having leverage in these negations -- both sides have bitten the hand that feeds them for so long that the generous spoon of the fans might not be coming back when this thing ever gets resolved.
“I think it’s a lot like politics,” said former Carolina great Eric Montross. “You got to get rid of the posturing. I think ultimately what we’ll find, and what my guess is, the points where they began is probably not far from where they’ll end. There’s been a whole lot of posturing left and right of those points and that’s unfortunate because that’s where you start to lose your fan base.”
Added fellow Tarheel alum James Worthy: “They both are going to be wrong and they both are wrong for continuing to blame each other when they know that they both have to give up something.”
The NBA was all around on Friday at a college basketball game because there is no professional game to turn to.
Not for the players like Brown, Jason Richardson, Vince Carter, Marvin Williams, or Tyler Hansbrough who were all in attendance cheering on their respective schools. Not for O.J. Mayo or Matt Barnes either, who came even though their schools, USC and UCLA, play two hours north up the coast.
Not for the owners like Gilbert.
Not the front office staffs either. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak could be seen chatting with former boss and current Golden State Warriors exec Jerry West as well as Lakers exec Magic Johnson. Clippers GM Neil Olshey and coach Vinny Del Negro were in the house (or, “on the boat”) too as special guests of Rear Admiral Dennis J. Moynihan, a childhood friend of Del Negro’s.
Even Harrison Barnes' game-high 17 points in North Carolina's 67-55 win was largely only possible because of the lockout. Had there not been a threat of a work stoppage last spring, he could have easily opted to become a top-five pick in the NBA draft rather than return to school.
So many men that should have been entrenched in an NBA season, instead spectators of their own sport.
Yes, the NBA season is nowhere to be found, but there were signs of the league’s troubles everywhere you turned on Friday.
Said Mayo, “I don’t think it’s the best deal, but I think some players are desperate enough to take anything right now.”
He didn’t include himself in that desperate group. When asked what happens if the players don't take the current deal and the NBA reverts back to the 47 percent split for the players, rolled back contracts and a hard cap, Mayo said, "It could just be a bluff.”
Barnes agreed with Mayo that the deal the players have in front of them is unacceptable.
“As bad as I want to play, it’s not a deal we should take,” Barnes said.
Then the Lakers forward was asked about decertification, and used the same B-word as Mayo.
“I’m not going to be a part of that,” Barnes said. “I hear there’s allegedly 200 guys in favor of it. That could be a bluff.”
The rain clouds stayed away on Friday, allowing the game to go on with as picturesque a basketball background you’ll ever see.
(“Did you ever imagine you’d see a flyover before a basketball game?!” a UNC staffer marveled to Worthy.)
But the omnipresent NBA lockout cloud still hung heavy.
It was an 11-11-11 Veteran’s Day celebration -- an occasion to be proud of both the country and the sport of basketball.
It was also day 135 of the lockout -- an occasion to be ashamed that the mess keeping basketball from being played at the highest level is still going on.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.