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NBA lockout battle with owners should remind players that perception matters

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LeBron James’s peasants-beneath-me quote on the last night of the season — “All the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today” — resonated far beyond the NBA Finals.

At the players’ association office in New York, they winced. Isiah Thomas, a former union vice president, wished the words had come out differently. They had seen this before and knew the repercussions:

When players and owners are sparring over billions and the most recognizable player in the game comes across as condescending, so do many of his peers.

“The perception game, the media game, is a game that the players are going to have to win,” Thomas said by telephone Thursday, hours before the start of the NBA lockout. “LeBron isn’t that guy, but he was portrayed as that kind of person. We all say things in the heat of the battle sometimes we wish we didn’t. It’s unfortunate it was taken the way it was.

“But, bottom line, they need to win the perception game this time because they didn’t win that game in 1999.”

In clumsily trying to make the players’ case in 1999, Patrick Ewing, then the union president, infamously said, “We make a lot of money but we spend a lot of money.”

Tim Legler called his own union “out of touch.”

But more than any, Kenny Anderson’s words became an unintended public-relations boon for the owners in 1999 when, interviewed by the New York Times about his finances, the veteran guard said, laughing: “I was thinking about selling one of my [eight] cars. I don’t need all of them. You know, just get rid of the Mercedes.’’

The backlash was immediate and incendiary. A Western Conference team owner called the day after the story ran and said: “We might have just won the P.R. war, but we lost a lot of consumers when he said that. They will not like our players for a long time.”

Hearing that, I felt guilty — because I was the one who wrote that story.

I vividly remember meeting Anderson at Micky Mantle’s restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for lunch 12 years ago. I even laughed when he echoed the car line, thinking at least he has a sense of humor about losing millions of dollars.

But ultimately I ended up helping mold public perception about the NBA players’ image during a protracted labor negotiation, about a guy who was not out of touch at all. On the contrary, Anderson felt deeply for the less fortunate. Months later I watched him pass out turkeys to impoverished families in the same Queens neighborhood he grew up in.

But all anyone remembered was him saying he might have to part with one of his eight luxury vehicles. That was it. The die had been cast. Players, not owners, were largely viewed as the reason 32 games had to be canceled in 1999.

“David [Stern’s] favorite quote is, ‘Perception is reality,’ ” Thomas said of the NBA commissioner. “Perception is reality but it’s not always accurate. You can create a false reality of a player, person, a team and business, and people will make decisions off that false reality created. And they’ll make inaccurate decisions.”

Thomas went further. “Perceptions of the African American male stereotypes come into play, perceptions that are not accurate. Every kid doesn’t want to grow up to be an athlete, an NBA player. There are more educated African Americans than there are just rappers, ballplayers and entertainers — the whole oversexed, got-to-be-with-a-lot-of-women stereotype you see in videos and whatnot.

“Anyone that has spent time around the NBA knows there are more Tim Duncans than there are [Stephon] Marburys. When I played, a lot of people used Charles Barkley to represent the way we played and lived — hanging out late, drinking, doing whatever he wanted after a game. That’s why he never became a champion because he didn’t make the sacrifice a lot of NBA players made with their bodies to win a championship.

“The bigger point is, that didn’t represent everyone in the league but a lot of people came to believe that.”

Midnight Friday was an artificial deadline for the loss of the 2011-12 NBA season. But there will be a moment in the first two weeks of September to see whether either side has the stomach to lose the first part of the season.

In the NBA’s last economic game of chicken, players and owners were hell-bent on not giving in. Thirty-two games and millions were lost. No one won. Coupled with Michael Jordan’s second retirement, it took the league more than five years to genuinely regain its standing among fans.

The NBA hit its modern-day nadir in 2004 — the night Ron Artest went after a fan in the stands in Detroit and a free-swinging melee ensued. Six and a half years later, ironically the same year that Artest was given the league’s citizenship award for his charitable work regarding mental illness, players don’t have the same image problem.

But another ill-timed utterance from LeBron or some other player the next few months and no one will see this lockout for what it is: the players basically being asked to pay for the owners’ bad business ventures.

If the league office had not decided to underwrite the WNBA, the Development League, the NBA Store, NBA TV and other enterprises outside its actual teams, if it merely ran a good basketball league, it’s doubtful even a small-market team would be in the red, let alone the 22 that NBA owners claim.

If those facts are obscured over the coming weeks by the reemergence of an old perception — that of the disconnected multimillionaire player who won’t just keep his mouth shut and play — we might have to look a little deeper than Kenny Anderson, LeBron James or greed to find a culprit.

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