Where the NBA still plays

The only place to see pro hoops this year is a tony Houston club far from the madding fans.

While the little brochure for Houston's ber-glamorous Westside Tennis Club boasts of Wimbledon-esque "immaculate grass" and red-clay courts "identical" to the French Open's Roland Garros, these days it is an altogether grander Grand Slam atmosphere that has local society here buzzing:

Shaquille O'Neal's thunderous dunks, Nick Van Exel's whip-smart no-look passes, and Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon's general dreaminess. All indications to the contrary, the National Basketball Association isn't in lockout limbo, it's just come here for vacation.

Since the beginning of the 5-1/2-month-old labor dispute that now threatens to scuttle the entire season, more than 30 of basketball's greatest talents (chauffeured by an estimated 120 of Bavarian Motor Works' chromiest mag wheels) have descended upon Westside to participate in what may be the highest-octane pick-up games in hoops history.

"The game here really tests what kind of player you are," says 1994 Dream Teamer Dominique Wilkins, known as "The Human Highlight Film" during the pre-Jordan era, and Westside's elder statesman. Now playing in Greece as Europe's highest-paid American, he is here to prepare for the coming season and help old friends stay in shape during the lockout. "It's a street-game-type environment, and you find a lot of guys who aren't comfortable with that anymore," Wilkins adds.

Currently, Westside is the only NBA training facility in the country that is legal for players to set foot on. Beginning in 1993, Westside owners Linda and Jim McIngvale began offering the facility - along with a weight room, spa, and personal trainers - to the Houston Rockets for free. "We thought it would be neat having the guys around," Ms. McIngvale says.

"We treat the players like family and keep the court open to pros [and some top college players] only," she says. "We're the only place that can offer them an NBA-quality run, so now they all come to us."

So what's a typical game like? Picture the NBA without any defense.

Uh, bad analogy.

Picture the league without any uniforms but an abundance of jewelry; without any whistles but plenty of cell phones; more than a dozen of your favorite role models free to sling sailor-blush expletives without fear of reprisal from the mothers of America or tender-eared fans. That's right, these roundball proceedings are off limits to the masses.

During the games there are moments of silliness, such as the lumbering Shaq's improbable execution of a crossover-dribble-spin move from the three-point arc to the basket. And there's the occasional $1,000 game of horse to round off the afternoon.

In short, picture all of the excesses of a conglomerated sport with $2 billion in annual revenues - but nobody's making enough money.

But there's also a palpable gloom here as players worry that the protracted labor dispute has no end in sight. In the meantime, though, they at least have a little slice of NBA Showtime in the Lone Star State.

"If and when the lockout ends, we need to be ready," says a winded Van Exel, coming off of a hard run. "We need to be enjoyable to watch. The fans are already missing basketball, if they come back to see sloppy, out of shape players, we're going to be in trouble."

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