NBA’s Got It All Wrong: If Lockout Happens, The League Is Playing A Game It Can’t Win

By Kevin Blackistone
Updated: June 14, 2005

Billy Hunter (left) and David Stern

Billy Hunter (left) and David Stern

DALLAS — If those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, what state of damnation awaits those who do not even pay attention to the present? I’m thinking of the people who call themselves the NBA.

For in the immediate wake of what the NHL (that was a large professional hockey league that once roamed parts of North America) has done to itself, how can any professional sports league even entertain the idea of a work stoppage?

And of all the leagues still breathing on their own, how can the NBA, so sure that it already has an image that is atrophying its veins and strangling its lifeblood of television ratings, contemplate locking out? Again?

But NBA chief David Stern said Sunday that he was prepared to padlock the league’s properties by the first of next month if the players’ union did not accept management’s latest offer for a new collective bargaining agreement. And union boss Billy Hunter responded by suggesting his membership wasn’t about to flinch, “No matter how many guns they put to our head.” (Nice choice of phraseology by the head of a constituency that has been castigated for, among other unsavory things, what has been perceived as its propensity for violence.)

It’s difficult to get worked up into a lather over what essentially is a dustup between a handful of billionaires and a whole bunch of millionaires, but this squabble between NBA ownership and labor makes so little sense, it makes you throw up your hands in bemusement.

Have these guys gone Ron Artest on us? Have they lost their speed dial numbers to NHL head honcho Gary Bettman and hockey players’ leader Bob Goodenow?

The NBA is not the NFL. The NBA is not Major League Baseball. It isn’t entrenched in the American sports psyche.

The league is lucky that the Indiana-Detroit fans’ brawl didn’t damage it anymore than it did. And it hasn’t seen hide nor Air of its greatest personality, Michael Jordan, since his last missed shot in that less-than-spectacular return to the court with the Washington Wizards.

So the NBA can ill afford to do what the NHL just did and call off any part of its business. But at least it is not the NHL. That’s a good thing.

As worrisome a situation as NBA executives and owners think they have, they aren’t about to go broke. They’ve had a salary cap in place for quite a spell now, which has helped them keep a lot more of the loot they’ve got coming in. That block of cheddar on their table has grown to be worth about $3 billion each year.

Owners aren’t selling their clubs for less than they purchased them for, either, as their brethren in the NHL are doing. NBA franchises are appreciating. That’s not an ominous sign.

Furthermore, the guys who play for the league don’t have a whole lot to cry about. Despite that salary cap, they averaged upward of $4.5 million in salary this season. So I don’t care how many Hummers and Escalades they have to fill up. With paychecks like that, they’ll still have plenty of pocket change left over for the nearest Louis Vuitton boutique.

So this rhetoric from Stern and Hunter better be no more than a whole lot of grandstanding and saber rattling. The issues that separate their two sides – length of contracts, drug testing and a minimum-age limit, according to Stern – don’t rise to the level of having to resort to the nuclear option.

And why aren’t they discussing getting rid of the ridiculous Prince Hamed-style openings they’re using at the start of the Finals games. How refreshing it would be if the NBA would get back to showcasing its game rather than looking like the fourth ring of a Barnum & Bailey circus.

The players did, however, concede more in the last contract standoff. That was partly their fault. They were not as prepared for sitting out as the owners were for closing arena doors.

This time around, the owners want more, too, such as shorter contracts, which obviously benefit them at the expense of players. But salaries will still go up and still be guaranteed. And when Erick Dampier makes more as a basketball player than Tom Brady does as quarterback of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, how can you debate the merits of your salary structure?

So there is really no good reason why Stern and Hunter shouldn’t be able to sit down and hammer out a new deal and avoid any shutdown of operations. Both sides are rich and getting richer. What they are daring to do is get dumb and dumber.