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.”