Friday, November 4, 2011
A battle fit for the big screen
By Henry Abbott
A few people who have really followed the twists and turns of these labor negotiations have suggested it would make a good movie, kind of like that Facebook movie only with famous athletes and racial overtones.
I laughed it off.
Suddenly, this movie has its climax, Saturday in New York.
Movies build to fight scenes by cross-cutting all the participants preparing. How many times have you seen a close-up of gloved hands packing up fancy guns? This is like that.
In this movie, there will be the union, bottles of Tums strewn across the conference table, struggling with the burden of the unknown. They have a plan, but will it be good enough? The foes are formidable. It'll take a lot of luck, and believing in each other, and racial integration, and everything that's great about America. (Come on, it's Hollywood, that's how they'd write this.)
On the owners' side, there will be Stern, the aging champ, saddling up for one last time. This time it's tougher -- the players are acting crazy, the owners have little respect. But he knows the rules of this playground. He has not one ounce of stress that 50/50 is the place for the deal -- a "just big enough" win for the owners. That's the veteran's advantage: knowledge.
The question, though, is can he muster the energy to bully the owners and players into his point of view? Can he muster the fire? He has burnt more than a few bridges in the past, and those old enemies are haunting. He'll show them all one last time ... or will he?
The participants meet, settle into their sides of the long hotel conference table, strewn with notepads, blackberries and water glasses. Quickly things grow ugly. Tense. This was expected, but it's still ugly. Both sides are convincing they're willing to walk, neither side is convincing they can get the other to cave. It's an impasse.
But ... what's this?
There's a new group storming in the meeting. Even the league's side of the room looks surprised. Who the hell?
It's Paul Allen and Michael Jordan, the oddest wrestling duo ever to tag in. And they're here to be David Stern's crazy uncle. Stern, they say, is a pussycat. We're almost ready to fire that guy just for being weak.
Here's an idea, while you're bellyaching about a soft cap and 50 percent of revenues allow me to show you our new offer: 47 percent and the hardest cap in professional sports. You have ten seconds before our new offer is our only offer.
Ten seconds? By the time we see the wall clock it's already down to eight. Stern shoots Hunter a look. These guys may be crazy, his look says, and I hate them for taking over my meeting. But this crap is for real.
Hunter looks at Fisher, Fisher looks at Hunter. They both look at the clock. Five, four, three ...
Jordan extends a hand to Hunter. "It's a pleasure doing business with you, Billy."
Talking trash, even now.
Billy's hand looks to be moving ...
The final twist
"Don't take that hand, Billy."
All heads turn.
It's like invasion of the nerds. Arn Tellem, Dan Fegan, Jeff Schwartz, Leon Rose ... some other guys, average height about a foot south of Jordan's, in assorted states of male pattern baldness, are streaming in the doorway Jordan and Allen left open. The camera struggles to pick out their faces as they march behind the seated-but-still-tall Etan Thomases and Matt Bonners.
Somebody mutters: Who the hell are these guys?
Everybody thinks: And what chance in hell do they have of scaring off Michael freaking Jordan?
They are probably all lawyers, but come with legal representation nonetheless. He places a bulging briefcase on the table, and fishes around in it. He's Len something-or-other, Silver whispers to Stern. Len puts on his glasses and reads from a crumpled paper he has located deep in his case.
He is saying something about federal law. He is breaking up this meeting with boring legalese? For real? For twenty seconds all are incredulous. Len says something about treble damages, but the whole speech is unconvincing. Even the even-keeled Fisher, who years ago stayed upbeat through his daughter's cancer scare, looks broken. As in: If this is our guy, all may be lost.
But Len's a funny little dorky guy in the huge spotlight of a majorly tense moment of a Hollywood movie. And they never fail. There has to be a kicker.
He finishes reading, takes off his glasses, folds them and places them in his pocket.
"What I'm saying to you, gentlemen, is that while you're arguing over $100 million a year, we'll be suing you for $6 billion a year. We have all the signatures we need to decertify here in this briefcase. We have the funding to withstand a sustained legal fight." (With that he glances back through the open door he has just come through. In the hallway a superstar crowd of Jason Kidd, Kevin Garnett, Dwywane Wade, Kobe Bryant et al looks on with a combined lifetime earnings north of a billion dollars. Arms resolutely crossed in the middle of them all, Paul Pierce returns the lawyers gaze with "I got your back" nod.)
"And we are not playing around."
There are a lot of ways the movie writers could go from there, from His Airness putting Len in a headlock to Stern slamming his fists on the table screaming. There are a hundred ways this meeting could lead to one or more missed NBA seasons.
But the ending the Hollywood writers will come up with if they're NBA fans is sanity descending on the room. Maybe those few minutes of insanity in the conference room are enough to make Hunter, Fisher, Stern and Silver to pine for the time when they controlled the process. Maybe both sides' crazy uncles -- the decertifiers on the players' side and the 47-percent hard-cappers among the owners -- cancel each other out.
Maybe after all that, Stern and Hunter and Fisher and Silver can quickly get to what they always meant to do: Kick the crazies out of the conference room and hash out the remaining details of a compromise nobody loves, but everybody can live with.
But that doesn't sound very Hollywood, does it?