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July 31, 2014, 3:39 pm

Locked out NBA players find home on campus

  • Written by DAN GELSTON
  • Published in Basketball

Kyrie Irving spent the night set for his NBA debut hanging with the Cameron Crazies instead of playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

His rookie season is on hold because of the lockout.

So what else is there for an out-of-work No. 1 overall draft pick to do but take a seat with Duke's face-painted and fanatical student section and watch the Blue Devils romp in an exhibition game?

"It was awesome," Irving said after swapping one CC for another CC. "My first time actually being with the Crazies."

Yes, Irving expected to keep a close eye on the Blue Devils after bolting the program following his freshman season. He didn't expect it to come so soon, only four months after NBA Commissioner David Stern called his name as the top pick of the draft.

The Cameron Crazies called him out in louder and more wildly enthusiastic tones.

Irving joined the club of NBA players who are going old school and dusting off the letterman jacket, pulling on those old warmup shorts with a state name or lovable mascot logo and going back to school as the real Big Men On Campus to work out, hang out or play pickup games at their alma maters.

It's easier these days to spot NBA players at State U than at a labor meeting listening to the state of their union's latest proposal.

Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, Rudy Gay, and Hasheem Thabeet work out at UConn. Kyle Lowry, Dante Cunningham and Randy Foye scrimmage at Villanova. Marvin Williams, Tyler Hansbrough and Raymond Felton toughen up this season's Tar Heels at North Carolina.

Paul Pierce, Mario Chalmers and other former Kansas Jayhawks played in the first "Legends of the Phog" alumni game at Allen Fieldhouse.

After Hansbrough dominated the Tar Heels in a recent scrimmage, coach Roy Williams stopped and asked what elite coaches from Jim Calhoun and John Calipari to Jay Wright and Bill Self must be thinking when their former stars hit the court: "Do you have any more eligibility left?"

No, but they have plenty of time to spare.

With progress still stalled in the negotiations to end the lockout, Stern canceled the rest of the November games last week and said there will not be a full NBA season "under any circumstances." The first two weeks of the season already had been lost to the lockout, which began after the old collective bargaining agreement expired June 30.

"It's been tough, but as a players' union, we're united," said Lowry, a Houston Rockets guard. "We wish we were playing. We want to work and we know the fans miss the game. We miss playing for the fans. We miss doing our job. We want to be back on the floor. We want to get out there and be working."

The lockout means more than lost games and hefty paychecks.

Access to NBA practice facilities have been cut off. No state-of-the-art weight rooms. No cushy players lounge. No instruction from the coaching staff.

Forced to look at other methods to stay in shape for a season that could start in December or not all, some NBA players have been returning to their familiar stomping grounds. For the players who take the Thornton Melon route, the comforts of their old home court beat sitting home and waiting for news.

Wright, who led the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009, said his team has benefited from having the pros around.

"It's the greatest learning experience I've ever been a part of in coaching," he said. "They're our players, so everything we taught them, they do. It's what we're trying to teach our young guys. They're seeing it. Kyle will stop a drill or Randy will stop a drill and say, 'Hey, this is what Coach wants you to do,' before I can even stop them."

Cunningham, a two-year NBA veteran, joked it's been odd hearing Wright's voice barking instructions again.

"I've got to tune in to him and make sure I'm paying attention," he said, laughing.

Wildcats guard Maalik Wayns loved testing himself in one-on-one battles against Villanova's old guard — and older guards.

Trying to keep busy, NBA referees Joey Crawford and Duke Callahan called a scrimmage last week. Former NBA coach Larry Brown is a regular at Villanova practice. Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins and other front office personnel have stopped by to watch. Sixers stars Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Evan Turner worked out over the summer at Villanova's sparkling practice facility.

The NBA season was scheduled to open this week — Irving would have made his Cleveland debut Wednesday night at Boston. With the schedule wiped out, he attended Duke's game along with former Blue Devils Lance Thomas and (Portland first-round pick) Nolan Smith.

The Crazies started chanting, "Lance and Nolan, sit with us!". The duo walked down the baseline and behind press row to join them near the baseline. Smith raised his arms and beckoned Irving to join him while students in blue shirts and blue wigs cheered him on.

Irving, who played only 11 games last season for the Blue Devils because of a toe injury, followed Smith and Thomas into the crowd and spent the rest of the game there.

"I couldn't turn that down," Smith said. "I have nothing else to do right now, work out and be a Cameron Crazy. That's what I'm doing."

He hopes the next time fans cheer for him it's for scoring a clutch basket in a big victory — in an NBA game.