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Shaun Powell

America West arena.
Not in November. Not this year, in Phoenix or anywhere else.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

All's dark on Opening Night, but there's still time for hope

Posted Nov 1 2011 11:12AM

This was the night, and the week, when all would be forgotten and forgiven, when David Stern would hear cheers in Dallas during the ring ceremony, when folks would let go of their grudges -- even those held against the Heat.

Except, that's not the case, is it? The games were supposed to begin Nov. 1 but instead they're only being played at the negotiating table, still, during a lockout that began in summer and now stretches into fall. You can't have an Opening Tip until you get beyond the Opening Tiff.

Everyone is being deprived: Fans, players, coaches, team personnel, arena workers, bar owners. It's now official: The 2011-12 season is being charged with the most serious sports crime possible: not showing up ready to play. Gone -- for a while, anyway -- is the anticipated squeak of fresh sneakers, the re-charging of the Miami Big Three and Shaquille O'Neal with Charles Barkley in the same studio, looking for some room for Kenny Smith.

The biggest loss, from a basketball standpoint, is the respect that's due the Mavericks, the distribution of their championship rings. The tradition of handing them out on Opening Night was to have a twist, because owner Mark Cuban was originally against the idea of rings. Who knows what shape and size he ordered up just to be daringly different?

We won't find out tonight.

Opening Night was to have Bulls vs. Mavericks, a tantalizing matchup of defending champ vs. hopeful champ. It would also have featured Thunder vs. Lakers, the young upstart against the aging former champs. And the next night, we were supposed to be treated to Heat at Knicks and all the stars both on the floor and in the first row at the Garden.

Even the developing teams had intrigue: The Cavs with the No. 1 pick, the continued rise of the Clippers, the youth movement in Washington. In the first 48 hours, the original NBA schedule dripped with the kind of matchups you usually wind up seeing and savoring in May and June.

But ... no. Those games are gone, along with 219 others (including preseason), November wiped from the books like it never was supposed to happen. It's too bad, because with a sporting nation recovering from World Series hangover, November weeknights are exclusively reserved for the NBA and the curiosity that comes with every new season.

What the erased November doesn't signal, however, is a complete and outright rejection of the NBA by fans. It's easy to jump to that conclusion, because of the simmering public resentment surrounding the owners and players and their inability to cut a new agreement. But the NBA doesn't come into the casual fan's focus until deep into wintertime. And hard-core fans will wait impatiently and then return once the games resume. They always do, in every sport.

Here's more good news: As difficult as these negotiations seem to be, the 2010-11 season still doesn't look anything like the last labor-interrupted season of 1998. That was a 50-game season, without an All-Star Game, and with an asterisk champion. The NBA lockout hasn't ventured into that territory. Not yet, anyway.

The crucial checkpoint is Christmas Day, the unofficial "opening" of the season with its holiday buffet of top games played in the afternoon and prime time. For a country exhausted on holiday specials and weary of wintry weather, that's the biggest NBA exposure day of the year, arguably bigger than All-Star Sunday. The public will let the NBA slide until then. So there's time.

Another plus for the NBA in this period of uncertainty is this certainty: When the lockout is lifted, the league will be ready. Dozens of players spent the summer and early fall playing in exhibition games and barnstorming tours. There are pockets of places around the country (Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles) that stage daily pickup games in high school and church gyms. A smattering of other players are playing overseas, earning some spare cash, ready to exercise their NBA escape clause when given the green light. Coaches are studying film from last season. General managers have long ago made their wish-list for free agency.

We won't see the fruits of all that labor anytime soon. And if that has some fans worked up, that's certainly understandable. The public can take only so much and for only so long. That's something every player and every owner should heed.

It's one thing to hear frustration from the masses. It's quite another to hear ... nothing. The sound of indifference, if it comes to that, would be a lot more destructive to the league.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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