To a man, the players state that the camaraderie, rather than the chance to hobnob with those higher up on the Hollywood pecking order, is why they love the league. Still, none deny that a certain amount of networking takes place, some of it slightly crass. “It’s the alternative golf course,” says Matthew Lillard (Scream, Scooby-Doo).

Nobody knows for sure just how many gigs have been secured as a result of pre- and post-game networking, but movies such as John Q and Coach Carter have proven to be veritable NBAE fests. Director Nick Cassavetes snared three league members and one player’s wife to fill out the cast of John Q, and producer Brian Robbins netted a few other players for Coach Carter. Despite the presence of many hugely influential execs -- Lions Gate Films higher-up John Sacchi and Frasier writer/executive producer Christopher Lloyd among them -- the players talk only so much shop in and around the court.

This doesn’t stop McKnight from touting his upcoming role in Sweetwater, a biopic of Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, the NBA’s first black player. “I got my first starring role here. It wouldn’t have happened if [the director] hadn’t seen me drop 40 [points] on somebody,” he crows. Martin Guigui, the film’s director, seems taken aback to hear this. “He’s certainly one of the guys we’re looking at,” he says uneasily.

You might not be able to help your career by playing in the NBAE, but you sure could hurt it. Divas and ball hogs are not tolerated. Battle says, affirmatively and for the record, “This is a jerk-free league.”

“I’ve learned whom I can work with and whom I can’t work with,” says NFL player turned actor Crews (Everybody Hates Chris). “Your integrity’s on the line. Are you a crier? Are you a whiner?” Lillard puts it more succinctly: “You know right away who’s a jerk.”

NBAE participation also clues in players to their emerging professional status. “When The Shield first came out, I had no idea that anybody in the industry had noticed us. Then, all of a sudden, everybody here was saying, ‘Hey, great work!’ It was like, ‘Wow! Really?’ ” recalls Benito Martinez, who is roughly 4,000 times as chatty and personable as the character he plays.

After camaraderie, most players cite the perks -- which, not unexpectedly, are significant -- as a big selling point. As the NBAE has grown, so, too, has the volume of swag. Most regular pickup games don’t kick off a new season with a 500-person launch party, much less with one featuring a set from Ice Cube, a video-screen reveal of the upcoming season’s rosters, and the basketball equivalent of boxing’s ring girls.

During the league’s first season, players received commonplace reversible jerseys. Now they are outfitted precisely like the pros, wearing the same kind of Adidas jerseys, shorts, and pullover tops and carting their gear in the same type of bags with team insignias. The league holds its championship weekend in April, and the winners receive title rings made by Jason of Beverly Hills. “Sometimes I wear mine to Vegas. You know, just to let everybody know I’m the man,” Cain quips.

The NBAE stalwarts have played on the Staples Center court for charity -- “They’ll stop whatever they’re doing to play at Staples,” Duffy brags -- and in front of 17,000-strong crowds at Phoenix’s America West Arena, as part of the league’s traveling schedule, that has taken them to cities such as New York, Detroit, Atlanta, Dallas, and Kansas City. They jump on a plane on Friday, hang with the locals that night, and then participate in a charity game the next afternoon, usually alongside NBA stars from the area and out-of-town entertainers (like Usher and Chris Brown). The league has played games in a hangar at Edwards Air Force Base for Military Appreciation Day and has traveled to South Korea on a USO tour. “We got to fly around in Chinook helicopters,” Duffy says, sounding like a kid.

If Duffy has any concerns as he heads deeper into the league’s second decade, they are about scale. “Every year, it gets a little bigger. You give guys shoes, and then they expect it every year,” he explains. “How do you top Ice Cube at the launch party? It’s hard to compete with what we’ve already done.”

With a 200-strong waiting list of players, the NBAE could expand to the point of matching the real NBA’s 30 teams. For the 2008–2009 campaign, it will ditch the pens and pads and adopt the official NBA statistical system, which allows real-time posting of stats on the Internet. Televising the league’s travel games remains a possibility, and the league will likely become bicoastal before too long, launching an offshoot in New York City.

Whatever happens, Duffy will be behind the wheel for it. When asked about someday passing the commissioner torch, he pauses and, for the first time in several hours, is struck speechless. “I don’t know. It’s kind of my baby. It always has been,” he says. He doesn’t consider himself irreplaceable, but he notes how the players and their support systems -- families, friends, agents, publicists, et al -- trust him to do right by them.

“I’ve groomed them,” he says with a guffaw. “But they’ve also groomed me. Hopefully, we’ll keep each other in line for a while longer.”

 


Role Reversal

Actors have been pretending to be athletes since before hollywood was hollywood, so it seems only fair for nba players to turn the tables. here are our starting five (plus one) nba superstars who have appeared on camera -- but not in basketball-playing roles.

Julius Erving, or “Dr.J,” on Frasier (1996) as Mike, a caller to Frasier’s radio show

Charles Barkley on Santa Barbara (1991) as a bartender

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Airplane (1980) as Roger Murdock, possibly the world’s tallest copilot

Magic Johnson on Malcolm in the Middle (2002) as ringer hockey player no. 32

Shaquille O’neal in Kazaam (1996) as the world’s most powerful genie

off the bench: Dennis Rodman in Simon Sez (1999) as an interpol agent