Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Players punch back at Commissioner David Stern, NBA owners

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images - Billy Hunter, Executive Director of the National Basketball Players Association, speaks at a press conference in New York after the players union met and rejected the offer on the table from the owners.

David Stern keeps waiting for this monumental insurrection from NBA players furious over their leadership. Stern figured the players, desperate over losing paychecks and not meeting payments on their luxury vehicles, would have bowed down to the owners by now and proclaimed their sincere thanks for giving them anything while not detonating the entire season.

But he didn’t count on Paul Pierce pulling a Norma Rae, declaring militant solidarity despite the fact his graying Celtics might lose their last shot at contending for a title. Stern didn’t count on the divide in his own constituency, between hard-line and let’s-get-this-damn-season-started owners, who are further apart at the moment than the players have ever been in this labor war.

More on this Topic

And the NBA commissioner clearly didn’t count on the players union playing a card this deep in a $4 billion negotiation, which Monday put the 2011-12 season on the precipice of cancellation.

“We’re about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA season,” Stern said after the players union disbanded, ending collective bargaining talks and thrusting their game of economic chicken into the courts, where it is expected to reside for at least the next several weeks.

Rather than get everyone lathered up further, three key questions:

1. Is this the end of the 2011-12 season as we know it?

No. Several agents, team and league officials I spoke with said the union’s move seriously upped the ante regarding a complete cancellation but that it can still be avoided.

“This is the first time I’m actually scared we might lose the season, but there is still time,” said one league official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The thing is, the courts are so unpredictable. If lawyers have taken over the process, we’re not looking at getting going until end of December at the earliest.”

What really happened Monday was Stern and the owners backed the players into a corner with an ultimatum to accept their latest proposal, which included a 50-50 split of revenue. The players balked, citing system issues that would restrict movement of players and the value and length of contracts, and now a judge decides whether Stern and the owners are a bunch of intransigent bullies or the players have no merit on their claim and need to sign the deal or else.

“I don’t think it detonates the season,” said Aaron Goodwin, the agent for Kevin Durant and a dozen NBA players. “Owners are still in a position to preserve a 72-game season. But they have to make the next move. It’s clearly in their court. Now it’s a totally different fight.”

2. Why is there a reason to have a season?

Other than flushing $4 billion, this is a good question, especially when 76 percent of respondents in a national poll on Nov. 6 said they don’t care that the NBA lost its first month of the season and, more telling, less than eight percent of those 30 or older said they miss professional basketball.

The only way the NBA hopes to keep or grow its over-30 audience is to play this year. Yes, just at the exact time Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose are beginning to move the popularity needle and fill the void of a retired Shaquille O’Neal and an aging Kevin Garnett, a lost season effectively ends Jason Kidd’s career, Boston’s fading championship hopes, Tim Duncan’s proper farewell, and denies the league’s geezers a chance to keep the Heat from winning its first championship with LeBron James.

3. What is standing in the way of this getting done?

Pride, maybe even more than money.

Okay, money is huge. Many players should be bothered by free-agent restrictions and shorter contracts under the last proposal. If the league’s latest proposal were agreed upon, Dwight Howard could sign a four-year deal with another team if he left the Orlando Magic as opposed to a five-year deal to stay in Orlando. But he would also be eligible for just 3-percent raises if he goes vs. 6.5 percent raises if he stays — down from 10 percent in the last deal. That’s millions of dollars over the life of a deal.

But that’s not what this is solely about. Neither is it about the union waiting too long to unleash its legal strategy, either, contrary to many opinions.

This standoff has more to do with Stern’s ultimatum to the players over the current proposal, which was essentially, “Take this deal and be happy with it because it’s not going to get better.”

That’s not a negotiating stance; that’s a dare. And many players are put off by that kind of tone by their primary employer, as every one of us would be, irrespective of the dollars involved. Even his “this is a sad day” tone Monday felt heavy-handed, almost dismissive of his bargaining-table adversaries.

I wish we could go into a nuclear winter in which Stern stops yammering about nuclear winters. Come on, David, is this really “a tragedy”? The league, not the players, began this impasse by opting out of the current collective bargaining agreement and declaring a lockout.

Stern is of course playing his usual divide-and-conquer game, getting the players to believe he plans to really cancel the entire season tomorrow and deprive 450 men, with only a finite number of years to earn this kind of money, their $2 billion share of the pie.

“Players whose last year was this season will have their careers end,” he said, ominously. “What they’ve done is destroyed incredible value.”

But what Stern is toying with destroying is worse: a mutually respectful relationship with his business partners going forward. His “take it or leave it” gamble backfired.

Instead, the players have counter-punched in for the first time in forever, and the ball is back in the league’s court.

“For years owners have treated players as if they are just their property — fining them over how they dress, act, everything,” said Aaron Goodwin, the agent for Kevin Durant and a dozen other NBA players. “This is the first time the players have the opportunity to say no. They feel like they’ve been negotiating against themselves for a month. This is a big moment for the relationship between players and owners from now on.”

Whatever happens, I believe we’ll still have a 50- to 60-game season, if not more.

This won’t be the nuclear winter of the NBA; no, this Cuban Missile Crisis will be solved so the Dallas Mavericks have a chance to defend. Trust me. I know Stern. He’s bluffing.

 
Read what others are saying