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Pau Gasol broke his foot playing for Spain in the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Players' love of the game sometimes breaks teams' hearts

By Steve Aschburner, for
Posted Sep 25 2009 12:47PM

The next time a star NFL athlete pulls over his luxury SUV at a city park, throws in with a bunch of weekend warriors for a rousing game of no-pads tackle -- or even rough 'n' tumble touch -- and risks getting carted off on a gurney probably will be the first. Despite what we see in those Brett Favre blue-jeans commercials.

And you rarely, if ever, have heard of a big league baseball player wrenching his ankle sliding into second base during a beer league game in January.

Yet seemingly every fall in the NBA, we witness the basketball equivalent: A highly compensated, purportedly irreplaceable asset with a guaranteed multimillion dollar contract gets hurt playing in some meaningless pickup game. On a nowhere court. With a bunch of amateurs. For free.

Michael Jordan made it sound romantic all over again earlier this month during his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in Springfield, Mass. Jordan -- in one of his snark-free comments -- mentioned the "love of the game'' clause that he and his agent made sure to insert in his initial contract with the Chicago Bulls. Whether that clause remained for the balance of Jordan's playing career and what, precisely, it allowed remains a mystery even to most Bulls insiders. But it became a part of Jordan's lore and legend, another sign of his white-hot competitiveness and passion for all things pebble-grained.

Specifically, it dealt with a paragraph in the standard NBA playing contract that requires an athlete/employee to refrain from certain high-risk activities altogether (skydiving, hang-gliding) and to seek written consent if he wants to participate in others, including various team sports. That means basketball, too, from a well-intentioned charity event to an impromptu challenge on asphalt.

"I would never offer that to another player,'' former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause told Sports Illustrated back in 1986, at the start of Jordan's third NBA season. But if the clause was an exception a couple decades ago, it apparently isn't now.

"It's not standardized, but it's a very common amendment that many players ask for,'' Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn said Thursday. "It's very common. No one wants to see his player getting hurt in September, but the bottom line is, if we're going to ask these players to work on their games in the offseason and be diligent about it, it seems a little disingenuous to then try to establish where and when it can occur. I have no problem with it.''

This came up again recently with the word that Dallas forward Tim Thomas, who signed a $1.3 million free agent deal with the Mavericks in July, already was hurt and needed surgery to repair a cartilage tear in his right knee. Initial stories in the Dallas Morning News said that Thomas was injured in a pickup game, although later reports referred to the activity in question simply as "an offseason workout'' in Thomas' southern California home.

"It's a franchise's worst nightmare,'' Donnie Nelson, Dallas' president of basketball operations, told me. He wasn't talking about Thomas' situation specifically. The 6-foot-10 veteran's arthroscopic surgery by team physician T.O. Souryal on Sept. 22 was declared a success, with Thomas' rehab projected to have him ready close to the Mavs' regular season opener Oct. 27.

Nelson was talking generally about the possibility that a valuable piece of an NBA team's puzzle might be lost where it matters least -- in a fun game or something meant to burn calories and break a sweat. Injuries are a reality every time players take the court, any court. But at least those that occur for their employers are an accepted and expected part of business.

Those that come at, say, a benefit for breast- or colon-cancer awareness, it's hard to quibble with that. But if it's just showing off or shutting some loudmouth's yap on a Saturday night ... not so much.

"There is some gray area in there,'' Nelson said. "I think we do it as well in the NBA as anywhere. Players do have to get clearance. We all can relate to players who want to appear at a charity game because we all know someone who ha s been touched by cancer or some other situation. And we know that our best player, Dirk [Nowitzki], is the player he is because of the work he does in the offseason.''

This isn't dramatically different from the debate over international competition that flares up any summer when NBA players want to, or feel obligated to, compete for their respective countries. If it's an Olympic year, sure, we all get it because that resonates in the U.S. But if it is the World Championships or some other FIBA event overseas, fans in San Antonio, Houston, Los Angeles and wherever else a foreign star has his "day'' job can get nervous and impatient. So can coaches, GMs and owners.

Lakers forward Pau Gasol, for instance, needed ligament surgery in early August on his left index finger while playing with Spain's national team. He recovered well enough to score 18 points with 11 rebounds and three blocked shots last weekend in the championship game, earning the MVP award and helping Spain beat Serbia 85-63. But let's be real -- that game resonated less with most Lakers fans than Gasol's availability for the preseason opener against Golden State on Oct. 7 in Anaheim.

Similar incidents abound. Portland's Nicolas Batum injured his shoulder playing for France this summer. Orlando big man Marcin Gortat sprained his back in action with the Polish team. Spurs guard Manu Ginobili needed surgery after the Beijing Olympics in 2008 after aggravating a left ankle injury, and in 2006, Gasol suffered a broken foot during the FIBA tournament that kept him sidelined for the start of the 2006-07 season. Beyond injuries that occur in the summer, such 10- or 11-month workloads have been blamed for in-season NBA breakdowns, along with general fatigue and slumps.

Dallas owner Mark Cuban has been an outspoken critic of international tournaments for NBA players, questioning the business sense of risking your most valuable human resources in ways that don't benefit the company -- while being on the hook financially if one of them gets hurt. Sometimes an NBA player suffers an injury on his own time -- Philadelphia's Willie Green was a free agent when hurt his knee in a 2005 pickup game, briefly jeopardizing a long-term deal with the Sixers -- but more often teams (and their insurance companies) wind up paying for all those lost services, at the bank and on the court.

Cuban did not grant permission for Nowitzki or guard J.J. Barea to participate in this year's Eurobasket tournament, though he did let Nowitzki represent Germany in the 2008 Olympics. More tolerant NBA execs and coaches see a distinction in competition held in real gyms, with referees, rules and other pro players who know and understand the risks. That's why many can accept summer workouts and games in Chicago, Houston, L.A. and elsewhere where most participants are NBA players. Those are more controlled, and presumably a little safer, than a schoolyard, a driveway or a patch of blacktop.

"I think you're finding NBA players less and less in those summer city leagues today,'' Milwaukee GM John Hammond said. "I think more players understand the risks involved. You have to respect the players' desire wanting to get better. How else can they improve? But it does concern you. We have players in pickup games today -- in our gym -- and one of them could get hurt. But it's much more guarded and safe.''

Said Nelson: "To me, it's two different things. If it's professionals with professionals, that's one situation. That's better than playing with some guy who is looking to make a name for himself by playing against a Dallas Maverick.''

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