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NBA stars focusing more on fitness than labor

Dwayne Wade, left, and Carmelo Anthony attend the

Dwayne Wade, left, and Carmelo Anthony attend the Versace fashion show in Milan, Italy. (June 20, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images


 Four initials said more than any player can, or has, in this NBA lockout. On the back of the Nike-produced jerseys for Sunday's "Battle of I-95" at the Palestra were the letters "BBNS". It was above the jersey number, in the place where last names usually are placed. But though the charity game, which included Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Chris Paul, demonstrated some great individual talent, the acronym sent a defiant message of solidarity.

OK, so the "Basketball Never Stops" slogan actually needed only three letters (BNS), but the point was made. Though the lack of progress in the collective bargaining process between owners and players have put the NBA's game on hold, the game itself can't be stopped. Not when there is always a ball, a gym and some extremely talented players willing to play and several thousand people thrilled to watch.

Yes, the venerable Palestra, packed with a raucous crowd, provided a great atmosphere, even without any type of air conditioning on what will likely be one of the last humid nights of the calendar year. But with all of the thrills of Tyreke Evans' ball skills, the awe of LeBron's seemingly unlimited talent and the impressive power of Melo's low-post dominance, this is still a game that needs organization. And these are players who need the NBA.

Most of the stars aren't hard up for money, even with lost paychecks this season. LeBron made $30 million in endorsement income last year. Paul and Anthony aren't near that stratosphere, but they still bring in more than enough extra loot through endorsements. So while we're starting to see an exodus of middle class NBA players to international teams just to get a paycheck (and their agents a commission), don't expect to see major stars making any moves. At least not until we've reached the desperate point where the entire NBA season could be lost.

Kobe Bryant continues to listen to offers from overseas, including a reported $6.7 million arrangement from Virtus Bologna in Italy, where he grew up while his father, Joe, played pro ball. But Bryant is, so far, merely entertaining these offers at this point. It's still a major insurance risk for a 33-year-old player coming off knee surgery with over $80 million left on his contract.

Speaking of insurance risks, you won't see Amar'e Stoudemire seriously talking about playing overseas. At least not until it is certain the 2011-12 season is lost. What you can expect is to see Stoudemire in Florida next month for a minicamp with his Knicks teammates. Carmelo told me Sunday night that he plans to attend, though Chauncey Billups told me last week he wasn't sure yet if he would make it.

All three players certainly aren't complaining about a little extra time to rest and recover after limping into the offseason. Carmelo revealed a secret on Sunday when he confirmed that he had surgery on his knees and elbow in May (see our story in today's Newsday for more). These were minor procedures, but still notable because it was the first time in his career that Anthony agreed to go under the knife. The knees, he said, were bothering him for his entire career. The elbow was a chronic issue.

He looked to be in excellent shape in the game on Sunday and proclaimed himself ready for camp, if camp had opened on time. The trick now is to remain ready for whenever the NBA season does begin.

And that's what most of the players are focused on right now: avoiding the mistakes of the 1998-99 lockout, when many top players -- none more than Shawn Kemp -- lost their conditioning edge from around for half of a season before an agreement was reached. 

So we'll continue to see these players arranging workouts with their teammates and partying like it's 1929, barnstorming with all-star teams and playing for charity. Team Melo plans to make its next stop in Paul's hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C. on Oct. 1 and there is talk of a game in Miami. "After that, whatever city calls us out," Carmelo said, "hopefully we'll be there."

That, of course, begs the question: shouldn't you instead be in the conference room for these labor talks? In 1998-99, some of the strongest voices of the union came from the game's top players, such as Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and even Michael Jordan. This time around? Derek Fisher is flanked by a collection of middle-class players who may have the intellect to represent their constituents, but there's just no juice at these meetings. The NBPA is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Miami and the union is hoping to get a better turnout than the 30-plus that showed up in Las Vegas two weeks ago.

The star players were present at a labor meeting with owners during All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles (it was, of course, convenient) and both Paul and Anthony were in attendance at a few sessions in June. But where have they been lately? Wouldn't their status give the union some bargaining power?

Maybe, if there was something to bargain. The sides remain at odds over economics and salary cap system, though it has been suggested that there has been some infinitesimal progress.

"Right now the same thing just keeps going back and forth so we really don't know how powerful we are at this moment," Anthony said. "We'll see what happens. We support Billy [Hunter] 100 percent, we support D-Fish 100 percent. My main thing is we just got to stick together. As players we've got to stick together and in the meantime keep doing stuff like this, keep having games like this, keep playing basketball and give the fans what they want."

As he promoted solidarity, Melo did suggest the presence of censorship within the ranks, as well, when asked why more star players aren't speaking out about the issues.

"We're not allowed, we're not allowed," he said. "Everybody has their own opinion, people talk here and there but nobody really come out and say what they really want to say. That's just the society we live in. Athletes today are scared to make...statements."

For instance, there are reports of a group of agents who are pushing the decertification agenda, which Hunter and Fisher continue to avoid. Melo wouldn't offer his opinion on the topic.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "I'm one person, I have my own opinions about it. Us as a group, as as a union, us as players, we'll figure it out. We talk about it, we stay in contact every day about that. If that's where we got to take it, thats where we got to take it."

But, really, with training camp already delayed, there was a twinge of impatience growing in his voice.

"Whatever it takes to get a season, man, that's what we want to do," he continued. "At the end of the day just let us go out there and play basketball and deal with the business stuff on the side. That's what I say."



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