The NBA season was supposed to open one week from today. But the commissioner has already canceled two weeks of the season, because the owners and the players are locked in a bitter dispute about how many Range Rovers can fit on the head of a pin.
This is a fight between tall millionaires and short millionaires. As such it's rather hard for most of us to have a rooting interest in who wins. As my friend, the Chicago sportswriter Sam Smith, says, "It is like watching two limousines collide. One guy gets out of the back seat of one limo complaining that he spilled his glass of Lafitte-Rothschild wine in the collision. And the guy from the other limo gets out, mortified that his gold Rolex was scratched."
Ah, the problems of the rich.
And make no mistake: These are rich people. The ones yelling the loudest about the need for all the players to stick together and fight the power -- Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Juwan Howard -- are the richest. They each make more than 10 million dollars a year! They could have their salaries cut in half, and still afford to order dinner in every night. From Paris.
Didn't you love it when Ewing said, "We're fighting for our livelihood. We cannot survive if we sign this contract."
Give me a break. What are we supposed to do, organize a bake sale for Shawn Kemp?
Let me know when you see Ewing on the side of a highway with a sign that says, "Will dunk for food."
More than half the players in the NBA are paid at least $1.3 million a year. That's $25,000 a week. The average salary is $2.6 million, which is $50,000 a week. A week!
If you didn't save any of that, you're an idiot.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the technicalities of the dispute between owners and players, it revolves around the centerpiece "Larry Bird exception."
This refers to a loophole in the normal salary cap structure giving each owner the ability to go far beyond the cap to pay his favorite players, and keep them on his team.
Years ago the Boston Celtics were permitted to give Larry Bird a gazillion dollars to keep him from seeking a deal with another team. The reason this happened is that Larry Bird was the last great white player, and everybody wanted him, so an exception was made.
Now there are no great white players, so the owners want to get rid of "Bird."
But the players' union is working on a pill that will turn other players white and make the Larry Bird exception viable again.
Excuse me, Tony, but you're kidding with that explanation, right?
At the moment the owners have the upper hand because the players aren't getting paid. This is a terrible predicament for the players, who are feeling a cash-flow pinch. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Boston's Kenny Anderson pays $75,000 a year to insure his eight luxury automobiles. But in these harsh times Anderson sees the need for fiscal responsibility. "I've got to get tight," he said. This raises the possibility Anderson could, at great personal sacrifice, decide he needs only seven cars.
There are owners braying about wanting to keep the players locked out all season. But that is bluster, and they know it. Because if the NBA shuts down the full year, who knows how many people will want to see it next year? Maybe people will finally decide that $300 for a family of four to see Milwaukee-Sacramento is preposterous. Then what happens to the worth of your franchise? You're left holding a bag of beans. Short term, the players have the most to lose. But long term, the owners do. And heaven help them when Michael Jordan leaves the NBA. Does the word "Hindenburg" mean anything to you?
The great news about this standoff is you can root against everybody involved: the owners, the players, the agents; oh, especially one agent in town who once boasted of a fantastically expensive sports coat he owned that was made from the beard of a certain kind of goat, cadged by hand from the berry patches where the goat grazed. My feeling is that anybody who owns a coat like that is making far too much money.
We have reached a unique time in sports. Previously, it had been impossible to convince us that owners deserve our sympathy in any dispute with players. But most of us now feel players make too much money. And as if to help drive home that very point, last week more than 240 NBA players -- crying poverty every step of the way -- convened in the city symbolic of poverty, chastity and humility -- Las Vegas!
Although the players put up a brave front of solidarity in Las Vegas, nobody is going to the barricades. Brinkmanship talk from both sides about canceling the season is all wind. Where are the players going? If they don't play basketball, it's not like there's going to be a run on dorm space at MIT. The most ominous sound of all is the silence from millions of fans who've turned away from the collision of these two limousines.
My guess is that the season will start right around Christmas Day, which is when NBC is scheduled to broadcast its first NBA game this season. NBC is bankrolling the owners, and nobody likes to pay something for nothing. NBC's Dick Ebersol is the most important player in this game, not David Stern or Billy Hunter. One morning Ebersol is going to wake up and want to see Michael Jordan play basketball on TV. Unlike the rest of us, he can make it happen.