The personal side of when teams rest their star players

My phone buzzed Wednesday morning. It was Mark, a college roommate from back in the day when phones didn’t buzz. When he couldn’t have called from his car, either, riding along now as a passenger next to his grown son Kyle.

“We’re on our way to Memphis,” Mark said into the speaker phone at his end. “Just called to tell you your league is BS.”

My league? My league? If it were my league …

Then it started to dawn on me. Memphis. Uh oh. Mark and Kyle live in St. Louis.

“Uh, how far is Memphis from where you live?” I said.

Five hours, more or less, Mark said.

“And you’re going …” I started to say.

“We’re going to see the Cavaliers and the Grizzlies tonight,” he said. “We’re going but LeBron James isn’t. LeBron isn’t, Kyrie Irving isn’t and Kevin Love isn’t.”

Yes, I told him, I had seen reports last night that Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue had told reporters that James, Irving and Love – his team’s three stars, three of the biggest names in the NBA – would not even make the trip to Memphis to face the Grizzlies at FedEx Forum Wednesday night.

“One has ‘tired legs,’” Mark said. “None is injured. They’re ‘resting.’

“What a rip-off!”

He was steamed. He wasn’t going to be calmed by any jokes I made right then about “Cavs-eat Emptor.”

So I got him to do the math for me to gauge just how steamed he was.

“The tickets are $125 apiece. We booked a room at The Peabody [Hotel]. There’s the meals and the gas and taking time off work. I asked Kyle if he still wanted to go and he said, ‘Yeah.’”

The tickets had been a birthday gift to Kyle. Kyle and his father had traveled to Cleveland in the spring to see an Indians game at Progressive Field. The NBA playoffs were in full bloom and, while the two were in town there, Kyle got Mark to snap his picture with the famous LeBron side-of-warehouse mural in the background. In the photo, Mark’s son is beaming.

“So that’s what he said he wanted as a birthday gift, to see LeBron play,” Mark said. “We looked into flying to Cleveland for a game. We thought maybe about Chicago. But Memphis is the closest to us, so we did this.”

“Closest” as in closest NBA market to residents of St. Louis, where the league is happy to sell T-shirts and League Pass subscriptions and mobile apps and occasionally entice curious fans into traveling considerable distances to attend games. And then this sort of thing happens.

“I looked it up,” Mark said. “Michael Jordan didn’t take nights off just to rest. As a matter of fact, he played in all 82 games in eight of his seasons. He did it at age 21 as a rookie. And he did it at age 39 in his final season with Washington.”

OK. Yeah. Things were different …

“This is just another reason that LeBron will never surpass Michael Jordan as the greatest ever,” Mark vented.

I could tell right then, not only was Mark going to cheer for Memphis Wednesday night, he was going to find ways to boo Lue.

That’s when Kyle piped up from the driver’s seat.

“I’ve heard it’s the league’s fault, not the Cavaliers,” my old roommate’s son said. “The NBA plays so many of these back-to-back games that teams have to rest guys like this.”

Well, I tried to explain, I didn’t know about “had to.” But that surely had been the conventional wisdom of late. Fatigue and overuse leads to injuries, the medical folks say, so coaches now give their main guys nights off to help keep them healthy and fresher for the long grind of the season and the playoffs.

“Look, I understand injuries. That’s part of what sports is,” Mark interrupted. “If a player can’t play, that’s different. But just sitting out? Not even traveling to the city?

“Look, the NBA markets itself through its superstars. This is like paying $1,000 for tickets to see Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenowith in a revival of ‘Wicked,’ traveling to Broadway and then finding out the understudies are going to appear that not. There’s nothing wrong with their voices, they’re just taking the night off!”

Two thoughts crossed my mind: Idina Who? I needed to get out more. And Mark was getting hotter.

So I told him that NBA commissioner Adam Silver knows this is a problem. I told him that Silver has made it a priority in recent years to attend to the issue Kyle mentioned, the number of back-to-back games as well as four-games-in-five-night stretches. That’s supposed to continue in the new collective bargaining agreement, with reports of a shorter preseason, an earlier start to the regular season and 14 extra days or so to sprinkle through each team’s schedule to further reduce the back-to-backs.

And I added that, if this were indeed my league, I would mandate that if an otherwise healthy star player is rested, it has to happen at a home game. At least in Cleveland, for example, fans at Quicken Loans Arena have a vested interest in James’, Irving’s and Love’s well-being. If they go to a game and don’t get to see their favorite players perform, it’s serving the greater good – for those fans – of the Cavaliers being healthier and fresher for the postseason.

Besides, fans in Cleveland get 41 chances each season to see LeBron in the regular season. Fans in Memphis – and Mark and Kyle – get one shot a year.

This “rest” thing, Mark wondered, it never was an issue for some of the greatest players in NBA history, right? He named several, all of whom played before the turn of the century.

“Didn’t it all start with Popovich?” he asked.

Well, I told him, that at least was the first headline-grabbing instance of it, back when San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich didn’t take four starters – including stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker – to Miami for a nationally televised game against the Heat in 2012.

That one embarrassed the NBA because it came in a TNT game, on a Thursday night on which the league goes head-to-head with the NFL for sports viewership. So then-commissioner David Stern struck back, fining the Spurs $250,000 for doing a “disservice to the league and our fans.”

But Popovich might only have been the first coach to be so candid about why he wasn’t using a player or dragging him along on the road. Other teams would play coy, citing “tendinitis” or “flu-like symptoms” as ways of giving guys breathers.

Silver, since taking over, is glad to be done with that degree of chicanery. He embraces some of the schedule complaints. And he has been reluctant to interfere with a coach’s deployment of personnel at the micro level by telling him how to prepare and coach his team.

“So then the NBA is like [NFL Rams owner] Stan Kroenke, is what you’re saying?” Mark said. “ ‘Just give me your money. I don’t care about the product.’”

This was one unhappy St. Louis sports fan. I reminded him to hit Beale Street for some BBQ while in Memphis.

And I made sure he knew that Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons really are injured.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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