Could NBA stars compete in 1-on-1 games?

Lakers star LeBron James and Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement bans players from participating in public offseason basketball games or competitions of basketball skill without league and team approval. And don’t expect the league and teams to approve events that don’t help the league and teams – or at least charities – make money. That’s why a planned 1-on-1 matchup between Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson didn’t get off the ground in 1990.

But what if the NBA terminates the Collective Bargaining Agreement amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports looked back on a scheduled 1-on-1 game between Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, organized by agent Leonard Armato, in 1995:

Luckily for Armato and those interested in the one-on-one format, in the summer of 1995, the NBA was in the midst of a lockout. Without CBA rules blocking players from participating, Armato threw the door wide open by announcing a one-on-one event that no longer needed to be sanctioned by the league.

Still, he wanted to run it by the powers that be.

“I went to David Stern and I said, ‘Look, there’s no collective bargaining agreement so I’m going to go ahead and do this one-on-one,’” Armato says.

Stern’s response?

“Well, technically I could stop you. But you know what, I’m going to pretend like I don’t know you’re doing this,” Armato recalls Stern telling him.

Armato described the deal with Stern as a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” agreement between the two friends. For the league, it could have been something of a trial balloon, allowing it to gauge fan interest from afar and later assessing the merits of bringing such a competition in-house.

All along, Armato felt it was destined to become an annual tentpole event on the NBA calendar. A quarter of a century later, Armato believes it’s time to do it for real.

“Just imagine if you had a global pay-per-view event of LeBron James versus the Greek Freak (Giannis Antetokounmpo),” Armato says. “It’s probably bigger than (Manny) Pacquiao vs. (Floyd) Mayweather. It might be way bigger. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars off that one event.”

With the NBA season on hiatus, the league itself could hold 1-on-1 games. Fewer people involved, 1-on-1 games could be safer than 5-on-5. That’s fewer tests, fewer chances of spreading coronavirus.

Though his primary focus is on resuming the season, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has also discussed playing in some form for a sports-hungry nation. This would be better than HORSE.

Haberstroh went into far more depth on that Shaq-Hakeem game (including Donald Trump’s involvement) and the entire 1-on-1 concept. I suggest reading the full article.