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Friday, August 24, 2012
Deep inside the lockout, and singing

By Henry Abbott

The worst thing for most NBA owners, I'm convinced, is that the public would see them at work.

Whether or not they'd be busted cavorting in Vegas like Prince Harry, I have no idea. But I know the information age frowns on the idea that anyone -- owner or prince -- has a position so lofty as to be beyond foolishness. Without knowing how they go about their business, it's a cinch to project they're doing things regally. The more you know, however, the more you know "royal" and "NBA owner" are fancy titles that don't necessarily come with common sense.

We all know this, I suspect, on some level. And yet, time and again it's surprising to learn that literally everybody is human.

Here's one story about a small-market NBA owner: He hires one of the smartest GMs in the world and signs off on a smart three-year plan to accrue young talent while hoarding draft picks and cap space.

After exiting the playoffs on a missed buzzer-beater, however, that owner gets to soul searching. All that boring stuff his GM is talking about is nice and all ... but he needs a star. He needs a certain someone with that sizzle, who can hit the kind of shot his team missed. So, combining Michael Scott's ability to miss the point with Mark Cuban's aggressive self-assurance, the owner homebrews his own multi-faceted NBA star search. Trashing LeBron in internet comment boards under a fake name is on the agenda, as is leaking foolishness to the press.

One of his more desperate gambits is to destabilize the free agent market by threatening to sign a very exciting and young but inefficient free agent. He takes it so far as meeting the youngster, even spending an afternoon on a basketball court, playing H-O-R-S-E and such.

In a basketball sense, they hit it off. The player blocks several of the owner's shots convincingly; the owner instantly loses his conviction the player can't defend. The player drains jumpers from spots similar to where the team's season-ending miss had come from. The owner swoons.

The team's GM is shocked to learn that, despite the plan, the owner has in fact offered this unproven (or, more accurately, proven inefficient) player a max contract.

And that's only the beginning of the trouble. Sadly all this happens against a backdrop of the NBA's 2011 labor strife. When the 29 other owners learn of this ... well, that seals it. One irrational fanboy max deal, and suddenly you're the owner to blame for a whole lockout.




Two important things to know about the anecdote above:
The writing team of Jason Gallagher and Ben Fort, Texans pursuing musical theater careers in Chicago have written this story for the stage, where their production company Six Hours Short has mounted well-received shows like "Chester and the Unbearable Burden: Parts I and II."

Gallagher and Fort have day jobs but spend fantastic amounts of time, and substantially all of their money, creating original theater. Of their many projects, the one closest to their hearts has been "The Lockout," but it's hardly because they are disgruntled fans out to embarrass owners. They are deeply in love with the NBA -- the script is thick with the kinds of observations and jokes you could only know if you follow this stuff daily.

It would be understandable if part of their motivation in writing such a thing was to expose billionaire owners as fools. Gallagher, on break from his -- in his words -- "glamorous" day job recycling computers, says it's essential to the script that audiences feel for his fictitious owner, and main character, Phil Illum: "Originally, we wrote this about a player, Macon Jones. But the more we worked at it, the more clear it was that Phil was fascinating and needed to be likable. Once the lockout gets going, both Macon and Phil just want what fans want: To get back to playing."

The NBA normally doesn't have a lot of comedy, and is almost entirely bereft of duets. "The Lockout" solves a lot of that. By focusing on the lockout, a time of unusually raw and open emotion, it cleverly presents emotional dilemmas that are in some ways closer to how the NBA really works than what's on the cover of the sports page. I don't know how many would admit it in public, for job security reasons, but in private more than a few general managers have stories like this one, where Illum tells his GM about an offer he has made to Macon Jones. The GM, foolishly, assumes it was the contract they had agreed to offer.
GM: Does he understand he can get more on the market than $6 million over four years?

Phil: Crazy, huh? Four years, six ten million dollars.

GM: (frustrated) You gave him 16 million dollars.

Phil: Heavens no. Who am I? It was six ... tens of million dollars.

GM: 60 million dollars.

Phil: Not in one year.

GM: You offered Macon Jones a max contract.

Phil: Mark my words. He's a superstar. Our superstar.

GM: This couldn't be further from the plan.

Phil: The kid's got a heart of gold.

"The Lockout" will be presented for the first time in a staged reading at Chicago's Stage 773 on Friday August 31 and Saturday September 1. Details.