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For the Basketball Obsessed, the End of Summer Is Like Lent

August 06, 2000|JAMES RICCI

FROM A PRIME SEAT, FAN WAS BESEECHING A higher power. "Please, Mr. Cleamons," he cried, "put in Hightower. Please."

Others seated around Fan hooted and snickered and tossed their heads. Fan, encouraged, waxed more righteous.

"Hey, Dennis, tell Cota to tuck that shirt in," he bellowed to Clippers assistant coach Dennis Johnson about free agent guard Ed Cota. "Hey, Cota, that's why nobody gonna sign you. You lookin' sloppy out there."

Former National Basketball Assn. star Jim Cleamons, a Laker assistant coach, and Johnson were running their teams' entries in the Summer Pro League at Cal State Long Beach's Pyramid.

The teams were made up of NBA bench players, untested draft picks and hungry free agents. Although a couple of clicks below the best in the world, the play was still amazing in its smoothness, speed and power. It being summer, the aristocratic distance that players and coaches keep from fans (especially fans like Fan) during the regular season was only halfheartedly maintained.

"Hey, Tyronn," Fan demanded of Tyronn Lue as the Laker reserve point guard walked onto the court after a timeout. "How come you ain't penetrating more?"

"Catch me outside 'the triangle,' " Lue called back to Fan, referring to the Lakers' disciplined triangle offense. He shook his head at Fan's impudence.

Fan laughed a wicked laugh. "This is what you get when you put the cheap seats up close."

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SAD TO SAY, BUT THE SUMMER PRO LEAGUE, the last vestige of high-level men's basketball to be had in the Los Angeles area, wrapped up last week. The Lakers' championship season is already dwindling in the rearview mirror. The WNBA, the premier women's league, doesn't make up for the disappearance of the men, and, in any case, closes shop itself in a couple of weeks.

For those of us enthralled by the game, the dry time is ahead--two-plus months of baseball's lassitude, golf's tedium and football's over-organized brutality. Our Lent.

Not until mid-October does the NBA rise again (the Lakers' first preseason game is Oct. 11), followed by the college basketball season.

Going without is hard. I always feel a hollow deprivation when I look at the televised sports listings this time of year. All tennis matches and auto races. Beach volleyball.

No other game measures up to basketball because basketball is the only physically demanding team sport that is also art, the only one in which style and substance are so closely interwoven that to try to isolate them from one another is to risk unraveling the fabric.

The game is part race, part wrestling match, part dance. Like a truly intelligent person, it manages to hold simultaneously in mind two diametrically opposed concepts: individual expressiveness and an immutable core value of teamwork.

Playing basketball makes me think of jazz. It emphasizes instantaneous improvisation on recognizable themes and stresses players' ability to anticipate what their teammates will do in the next limb-flashing moment.

I've played basketball ever since grade school. The incipient arthritis flaring in my ankle, the pulled upper-leg muscle that refuses to heal and other emissaries of advanced age increasingly tempt me to call it quits.

Physically experiencing even a very humble version of the demands of the game, however, helps keep me in maximum awe of its great practitioners. I suspect no other young man's sport has so many aged devotees still flinging themselves at it, despite its physical demands and risk of injury.

Only a few weeks ago, I and some others from my Saturday morning basketball group found ourselves at Long Beach Community Medical Center's emergency room, waiting while the scalp of our 43-year-old friend was being stitched closed. He'd heroically chased down an opposing player on a fast break, crashed into the metal backboard pole and fallen hard, cracking his head on the asphalt.

As we escorted him, head-bandaged and slightly dazed, out of the ER, one of us told him, "No matter what, always remember this: You blocked the shot."

You can bet he'll be especially appreciative the next time he feasts his eyes on the sight of Kobe Bryant performing a distance-defying, gravity-scorning version of the same thing. Sixty-six meatless days to go.

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James Ricci's e-mail address is james.ricci@latimes.com

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