NBA lockout: Sound and fury, signifying nothing


Derek Fisher, president of the National Basketball Players Association is surrounded by NBA players (from left) LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce and Baron Davis, among others, as he speaks Sept. 30. (Michael Cohen/Getty Images)
Mike Wise
Columnist October 5, 2011

Near as I can tell, the NBA is at a crossroads in its labor negotiations. I say this cavalierly because no one I regularly talk to cares that the NBA has canceled training camp, preseason, soon the first two weeks of its regular season and possibly LeBron’s next Nike shoot.

When I ask friends in Washington, “What would you do without the NBA for a whole year?” they usually reply, “We’re Wizards fans; we already have.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Or they look at me strangely, as if I asked, “What would you do if your life was so destitute and boring you had to stay up and watch the Clippers and the Bucks after midnight in November?”

If I’m a lawyer for the players’ association and a deal is somehow struck at some point to avert the cancellation of the entire season, I would insist on language that says the next collective bargaining agreement does not expire July 1 but instead on or about June 10. Right in the middle of a riveting NBA Finals, when both sides might actually have some leverage with the American public.

Because most of us don’t care that Jerry Buss and James Dolan and Ted Leonsis and their super-rich owner peers can’t figure a way to divvy up $4 billion with Kobe, Carmelo and JaVale McGee. Most of us don’t watch until Christmas day and then we don’t pay serious attention again until after the All-Star Game, about the time the playoff races becoming meaningful.

When NBA Commissioner David Stern announced Tuesday that the league will have no choice but to lop off the season’s first two weeks by Monday — adding that no further talks have been scheduled — the collective thought among most fans probably fell between “So what” and “Let me know when you cancel the playoffs.”

Before Stern and union chief Billy Hunter and their entourage of blazers trim more games and move toward the endgame, they really need to ponder hard the detonation of a season and realize a simple fact before the button is pushed:

The only thing worse than millionaires and billionaires unable to agree on a piece of the pie in this sorry American economy is an overinflated sense of your own worth. No one outside the NBA bubble gives a damn about your fight — or, in some places, whether you even have a season.

You’re not merely courting financial doom; you’re courting something even more costly to a sport’s long-term growth: lasting apathy.

Before they become the first major North American sports league to detonate a season since the NHL in 2004, memo to players and owners: There is no worse time to be playing chicken with each other.

For the first time since Michael Jordan’s Bulls, consumers are starting to warm up to the NBA again in overwhelming viewing numbers. For the first time since Kobe and Shaq were teammates, there is a bona fide villainous team full of star power: the Miami Colluders of LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh. Love or loathe the Heat, we watch.

The major media markets — L.A., New York, Chicago and Boston — all went to the playoffs last season. New likable stars such as Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose replace the old, stuffy guard of Tim Duncan and the Spurs, and somewhat compensate for the retirement of Shaq.

To waste that burgeoning popularity after the NBA worked so hard to get past November 2004 and Ron Artest and the Malice at the Palace — to successfully combat that gnawing stereotype of large-living athletes, most of whom are African American, not giving a hoot about their paying customers — and throw all progress away over money would be a flat-out shame.

Not that some us didn’t see it coming. Making its way around the Internet on Tuesday, this is from a 1998 Tom Boswell column in The Post about the league’s last lockout, in which Boz comes across as pretty prescient:

“It takes a long time — many years of hatred and mistrust, bad faith and grudges — to do something as historically dumb and destructive as baseball pulled in 1994. You have to lay the groundwork. You have to poison the water. Powerful people, and their ardent disciples, must learn how to despise, demonize and distort their adversaries across the bargaining table. That takes time, pain, public embarrassment and enormous sums of squandered profits.

“That’s what the NBA is doing now. Commissioner David Stern and agent David Falk, deputy commissioner Russ Granik and union head Billy Hunter, are doing a textbook job of setting the stage for years of anger, future strikes, erosion of public image and finally — who knows? — maybe 13 years from now, one final battle as idiotic as the one from which baseball is still trying to recover.”

Crazy, no, the same entrenched places, if new faces, at the 2011 bargaining table.

There is a reason baseball isn’t the national pastime anymore, and labor strife needs to take a chunk of blame.

If the NBA is really on the precipice of losing an entire season, Stern’s legacy of guiding a struggling, almost niche sport to its renaissance in the 1980s and shepherding it through the gravy Jordan years of the 1990s becomes permanently stained.

If it’s not back to being a niche sport, the NBA — coming off its most thrilling championship series in years — would have a mountain of apathy to climb its way back to true relevance again.

The players already have agreed to give back almost 5 percent of their cut from the last agreement. The owners want them to give back about 11 percent — a difference of, oh, $1.5 billion over a decade. The players are slow to compromise; the owners are glacial, stubborn, convinced losing an entire year will reap rewards in 10 years.

Again, after sponsors and network partners with programming to fill, no one outside of NBA World cares.

Amid the fall sports calendar, labor woes in the NBA have less buzz than the opening of the NHL regular season.

Having covered the 1998 lockout on a daily basis, I would now rather watch Michael Vick’s next news conference, even if ESPN covers it as a State of the Union address.

Wake us when you have an agreement. If not, beat it. We’ve got other things to watch, to do and worry about — like our own non-guaranteed livelihoods.

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