PROVO, Utah (AP) — It wasn’t an NBA arena and they weren’t playing for big paychecks.
To more than a dozen of the NBA’s top rookies, Thursday night’s exhibition game organized by former BYU star Jimmer Fredette was a chance to block out dire news of a potential long lockout and just play.
They didn’t disappoint the 11,124 fans who turned out for a high-scoring, FredetteAboutEverything all-star game.
In the end, the team captained by former San Diego State star Kawhi Leonard and coached by the Aztecs’ Steve Fisher left with a 140-126 victory over Team Fredette.
“I always knew Jimmer’s fans were crazy, but this is special,” said former UConn star Kemba Walker, who scored 23 points for Team Leonard. “I had a great time out here and could tell how much this city loves him. Credit to Jimmer.”
Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick Tobias Harris and Leonard, drafted 15th overall by San Antonio, led the winners with 24 points each. Nolan Smith, the 21st overall pick for Portland, led Fredette’s team with 30 points and 13 assists.
Fredette, who scored first for his team by splitting a double-team of Walker and Bismack Biyombo, had 10 assists and 27 points on 9-of-20 shooting, including a few patented stop-and-pop 3-pointers.
When it was over, he walked off to one final standing ovation.
Like the others, he didn’t know when he’d get a chance to suit up as a pro again, what with labor talks at a standstill and training camp and preseason games about to be cancelled.
“This was a good measuring stick for us,” Fredette said of the exhibition.
“Now it is kind of a waiting game. You just work as hard as you can and stay in shape. … That’s pretty much all you can do. It will be a long offseason,” he said. “You have to try to get in game shape because when it does start, we’re going to go right into it.”
Thursday’s game gave coach Fisher something to smile about in Provo, a place that has haunted him.
The last time Fisher faced Fredette on the BYU campus was in January and Fredette dropped 43 points on the Aztecs before a frenzied, sellout crowd of nearly 23,000.
On Thursday, the atmosphere was just as crazy, even if the Cougarettes were hardly the Laker Girls and the officials were college refs following NBA rules.
While Fredette got the loudest ovation, along with BYU coach Dave Rose, fans dressed in BYU blue-and-white cheered every good play.
There were plenty to go around with eight first-round draft picks and four second-rounders competing.
There was Smith bouncing a ball off the backboard to set up Chris Wright for a thunderous dunk after a turnover, Walker setting up Harris for a jam the other way and the diminutive 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas playing like he still has a giant chip on his shoulder.
For a while, the fans who wore T-shirts that spelled J-I-M-M-E-R started chanting “We Want Thomas.”
Thomas loved it, especially considering he was taken in the second round by the Sacramento Kings, No. 60 overall — 50 spots behind Fredette. He closed out the scoring for the winners with a dunk, then hung on the rim and had the crowd roaring.
“I’ve never been out here before, but after that, I’ve got to make a few more trips,” Thomas said. “It was weird, but they love me and I love them. The crowd was unbelievable.”
Thomas had already gotten a taste of Jimmermania in July.
“He was like a little Justin Bieber of Sacramento,” Thomas said. “They loved him. You’d see people crying over him … trying to touch him. It was unbelievable, crazy.”
On Thursday, Fredette got a taste of NBA talent as he saw a few shots in the lane swatted away by guys like the 6-9 Biyombo, the No. 7 overall pick of the Charlotte Bobcats and the highest-drafted player competing.
Biyombo, who has played professionally in Spain the past two seasons, was savoring any bit of action before he can officially sign with Charlotte.
“I hope the lockout will be over soon,” Biyombo said before the game. “At the same time, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Though Biyombo and the others received a nice appearance fee to play — enough for a down payment on a car perhaps but not a house — the 6-9 forward from Congo said he would have played regardless.
“It’s not about money,” Biyombo said. “I play this game because it’s fun to me and I love this game.”
The game marked the professional debut for many top rookies stuck between college careers and the NBA, but there were plenty of subplots.
It featured a showdown between two native New Yorkers, Fredette and Walker, who spent last season vying for national player of the year honors.
Fredette won the award, but Walker walked off with the biggest prize — an NCAA championship — before choosing the draft over his senior season.
Walker said he was expecting fans to give him a hard time. But he received a ton of tweets welcoming him to Utah, and was loudly cheered, especially after he knocked down consecutive 3-pointers.
The smile only came off his face when asked about the lockout.
“I left college to be in the NBA. It’s my dream to play in the NBA. At the same time, I don’t want to settle for anything less,” Walker said of the lockout. “We want to get a great deal.”
Leonard, whose duels with Fredette the past two seasons raised the profile of the Mountain West Conference, felt the same way.
But like the others, he showed he had been doing whatever it takes to be ready when, and if, the season ever starts.
Leonard even showed up recently on consecutive mornings at the Aztecs’ practice facility in San Diego with two lights from home because the building was still dark in the offseason.
“It wasn’t like arena lighting, but it was enough for us to see the rim,” said Leonard, who has added about 15 pounds of muscle.
He, like the others, now were headed back home, to college campuses or private workout facilities, instead of NBA camps.
“This made it feel like you had something to prepare for,” Thomas said. “You’re playing against pros, playing NBA rules and the crowd was out there to cheer for you. Going back home, it will be a little quieter in my little apartment. I’ll remember these days.”
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