On possibly the last night of the NBA season, they made peace. That's right, before the Spurs and Pistons tried to resuscitate sagging ratings again, the league's owners and players agreed to divvy up $3 billion in the interests of, well, $3 billion.
On the night the two most complete teams in the league hoped to capture a nation's fancy for at least a few quarters, a six-year collective bargaining agreement was agreed to, guaranteeing labor harmony until 2011.
Everybody gets rich, no games are lost and the post-Jordan hangover continues unabated.
Give credit to Billy Hunter, the executive director of the players' union, and David Stern, the NBA commissioner. In a season in which their players cold-cocked fans in Detroit, in a season in which fewer people watched their product -- and more and more of the masses did not feel a real connection to the game's stars -- they knew they could not go down the same road as the NHL, whose players are all calling "Next!" on one frozen pond north of Iceland.
NBA players and owners smartly also agreed to institute an age limit of 19 years old, meaning more and more gifted teenagers will skip class for John Calipari or Jim Boeheim before they are able to cash in. Roy Williams may even be able to keep some Tar Heels. Or teams can send players to the National Basketball Developmental League for up to two years, which will probably result in many of the game's younger players bolting for Europe before coming back to the NBA.
Yes, the age limit is a legal minefield, what with the apparent restraint of trade and the idea that any union has a right to collectively bargain away the rights of its future members. After Michelle Wie and Freddy Adu, keeping 7-foot, 17-year-old Greg Oden from Lawrence North High in Indianapolis out of the NBA for another two years seems almost criminal.
But in 10 years, they will be glad they went this route. It's not the facade of pursuing a college degree that matters. Nor the notion that a year more of basic fundamentals will make for a better player. No, there are 14-year-olds who have better left hands and rotation on their shots than 10-year NBA pros. The age limit, in my mind, is about life experience, growing as a person before you're thrown into a surreal world of money and fame. Culturally, it's meeting someone outside your own insulated social circle before everyone in your life becomes a hanger-on.
Unfortunately, 19-year-old Darko Milicic is grandfathered into the deal.
Personally, I'm happy about the Spurs being on the cusp of a championship. I mean, I love the Pistons' heart and moxie. I do not like the fact that Darko, the last man on the Pistons' bench -- Serbia-Montenegro's "gift" to American basketball -- was getting closer to winning his second championship ring, which is two more than Elgin Baylor, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and John Stockton have. Combined! There is clearly no justice in this game.
For instance, Rasheed Wallace, one of the most miserable professional athletes you will ever meet in your life, is also working on two rings. 'Sheed calls championships " 'ships" for short. After his knucklehead move to leave Robert Horry open in Game 5 for the game-winning three-pointer, it follows that Wallace's 'ship has sailed.
Hey, 'Sheed happens.
Where does the NBA go from here? Nowhere. As much as the country has rejected a series between the nation's No. 11 and No. 37 media markets, respectively, rivalries and teams need to be shoved down the public's throat. Because, when you think about it, when it comes to these NBA Finals, how we feel about the game domestically, we're all hypocrites.
We kept giving Stern grief about pushing the marketing of individuals on us, all those Sunday afternoons of Shaq vs. The Admiral, A.I. vs. T-Mac, the Lakers vs. themselves, Larry Brown against his own job-hunting ego. We asked for the golden days of Celtics-Lakers, in which each Finals team had not one star and a bunch of extras, but rather a group of players who understood the sublime choreography of teamwork.
And the moment we get such a matchup -- Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker against Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton, not to mention 'Sheed -- we talk about blowouts, low ratings, lack of star power. We want to go back to the egomaniacal selfish ballhogs who said crazy things on the off day and talked junk behind their teammates' backs. Duncan actually gets along with Ginobili. How weird is that?
We've become such an A.D.D. nation of sports fans, more of us would rather watch a re-run of the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills than a classic Game 5. We should be ashamed of ourselves, being such fickle consumers of a game we profess to love.
Game 6 was shaping up as riveting theater at SBC Center. It's a reach, but there was even a local angle to this series. The Pistons went into the night trying to become the first team since the 1978 Bullets to win a Game 7 on the road for the title. The general manager of that team was Bob Ferry, father of Danny Ferry, now the president of basketball operations for the Spurs. Like we said, a reach.
But that's what the NBA Finals have become, a vehicle to sell plotlines beyond the court because no one seems interested in watching what is happening on it.
It was in this environment that Stern, Hunter and their attorneys knew they had to make a deal, to keep whatever momentum is going in the post-Jordan era alive. On possibly the last night of the season, amid low ratings and a fame-struck society unable to appreciate just the game anymore, they had to make a deal. They could not do anything else to kill their league.