How would you feel if you paid hundreds of dollars to see U2 perform in concert and Bono didn’t show up? Or if you laid down a pile of cash to see “Phantom of the Opera” with the A cast and Michael Crawford decides to do some load management and sit out the performance? 

That’s the problem NBA fans often face. They plunk down their inflation-strapped cash to see a game and the featured attraction takes the night off, just because he wants to.

That’s what happened to Roger Smith (not his real name). He recently sent me the following email.

Doug, 

I need a listening ear. I attended four Jazz games this year, and I was 0-4 in having the other team’s “star” play. The latest was Kevin Durant, who sat out last night. We were burned twice by (Luka) Doncic at Mavs games. The fourth missing star was Ja Morant with the Grizzlies on Oct 29. Of course, the Jazz aren’t much better; who knows why Clarkson and Sexton aren’t playing? We’ve seen players come back from major knee surgeries in the time it has taken Sexton’s hamstring to heal.

I know we can’t say that ticket purchasers pay (player) salaries because the pie is so much bigger when you consider shoe contracts, TV money, and so on. But I miss Jerry Sloan’s expectations that players play for the fans in the seats. Stockton, Malone, Jordan, Kobe, Barkley and others brought it nightly. I miss that, but I’m coming to terms with it never returning. 

Lastly, the players aren’t alone to blame. The entire system has morphed into this load management mess (thanks Popovich!). I’m just starting to “load manage” my attention as a fan. 

— Jazz fan

This has been a well-worn topic of discussion around the NBA — this business of so-called “load management.” It’s a polite way of saying a player — most often a star player — is taking the night off to rest. This phenomenon was nonexistent when the aforementioned Jordan, Bryant, Malone, Stockton and Barkley played.

Stockton played in every regular-season game 17 times during his 19-year career. Malone missed two or fewer games in 17 of his 19 seasons. Michael Jordan played in at least 80 of 82 regular-season games 11 times in 15 years, including 82 games in the 2002-03 season, when he was 39 years old. If these players missed a game it was due to injury; they weren’t managing their load.

Ron Boone and AC Green played more than 1,000 consecutive games without taking a break, and they played in an era when two or three games were scheduled on consecutive nights.

On the other hand, Doncic has played 66 or fewer games in all but one season (he managed 72 once) in five seasons. Kawhi Leonard has averaged 57 games per season during his 12 years in the league, not counting one season in which he didn’t play at all. Durant has played in 80 or more games only four times in 16 years. Morant has played in an average of 61 games in four seasons. Joel Embiid has averaged 56 games per season in seven years. Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t topped 75 games since the 2016-17 season.

The NBA attempted to address the “load management” problem in the new collective bargaining agreement (it still must be ratified), which includes this change: beginning next season players must appear in a minimum of 65 games to be eligible for postseason awards (Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, etc.).

As “Roger” suggested, fans could practice load management themselves and skip games; then where would the league be? Fans aren’t getting their money’s worth; neither are the owners. Durant, for instance, makes $48 million per season. In the 2022-23 season, split between his time with the Nets and the Suns, he has played in only 45 games because of injury, which translates into $1.066 million per game.

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Jerry Sloan, the late great Utah Jazz coach, never considered resting players. He believed it cheated fans; he believed that players should get up and go to work every day, like everyone else.

If playing 82 games is too much for the modern player, then the NBA should shorten the season, an idea that has gained some momentum in recent years. It would have the added benefit of making the regular season more meaningful.

During All-Star Weekend, Malone, who has been retired for two decades, addressed the issue: “All the guys who came before me, or played when I did, they’re cringing right now … I have never, and will never, understand load management. …  I’m not here to debate nobody, it’s just the way I was raised. I understand nagging injuries and stuff like that. But I guarantee you, the majority of stars in my time wanted to play.”

Like his old coach, Malone also sympathized with fans. “What if a kid showed up and never saw me play; how am I gonna do him and his family like that, all the money they paid? I showed up every night. That’s what I’m proud of the most.”

Utah Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan, former players Karl Malone and John Stockton, and Jazz owner Larry H. Miller attend a press conference at the Delta Center Thursday March 23, 2006. Stockton, Malone and Sloan believed if you were not injured you should be out on the floor. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News