- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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Most of us know NBA fans are dealing with a shutdown that could cancel part or all of the 2011-12 season -- even though the end of the 2010-11 season was a total success for the league. There was a changing of the guard, as the Dallas Mavericks eliminated the defending champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the Western Conference semifinals and then went on to beat LeBron James' Miami Heat for the league title.
The NBA enjoys worldwide popularity. Many teams feature players from countries such as Brazil, France, China, Australia, Spain, the Sudan and Germany. But while the league has not opened its financial books to the public, it is safe to say the NBA isn't immune to the economic realities that other businesses have had to deal with in recent years. The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players' association came to an end in June, and that in turn is providing the owners an opportunity to deal with issues they say have been of concern for several years.
One glaring and crucial problem for the NBA, according to the owners, is that a majority of teams are losing money. The teams in the major markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston enjoy a significant financial advantage from their local media revenue, which isn't available to the smaller-market teams. As a result, franchises in Sacramento, Indiana and Charlotte, for example, are struggling to get by. Unless there can be some type of adjustment to the league's revenue-sharing arrangement worked out by the franchise owners, this situation will continue to make it difficult on the small-market teams. For the most part, though, that's an issue for the owners to work out on their own.
From the players' perspective, they have to try to maintain the extraordinary financial advantages they have gained in the past 20 years.
I spoke with Oscar Robertson, my former teammate, about the issues at stake in these negotiations. Oscar says there is a huge shift in focus from the days when he led the players' association in its efforts for higher pay and better working conditions. In those days, the fight was mainly about free agency. The league had the power to control any movement of players. So if a team had the rights to a player, he could not sign a deal to play with any other NBA team even if his contract expired. Oscar's victory in court meant players could now find the best deal available as free agents, and salaries have steadily gone up over the years as a result. In addition, there were provisions that set standards for travel accommodations, medical care and pensions.
Today, the amount of money at stake is so much greater. In the '70s and '80s, team revenues were determined by ticket sales, local TV contracts and a share of the national TV contract. Now, each team gets a share of a global TV contract that has continued to grow as the game has become more popular worldwide.
This past season, I was traveling in Turkey during the playoffs, and fans there were tuned in to the outcome of every game. The games were broadcast at 2 or 3 a.m., but Turkish fans were not complaining at all about having to get up at that hour to watch. They were especially tuned in to the Bulls, who have a Turkish player, Omer Asik, on their roster. But even after Chicago was eliminated, the Turkish fans continued to follow and enjoy the Finals. That scenario is now common in many countries around the world.
This growth in popularity has made for a huge financial pie that must be divided among the owners and the players. A knowledgeable league source tells me the NBA's league-wide revenues came in at an all-time high of $4.3 billion this season. The players, like any group of well-paid employees, want to keep their slice of the pie as large as possible, but the owners need to rein in their costs. How can they lower their expenses? The Atlanta Hawks' Etan Thomas, in a HoopsHype.com NBA blog, says the league's opening position in the bargaining was more like "a Christmas list to Santa Claus than an actual negotiation. The NBA expressed desires of a new imposed hard cap, removal of all guaranteed contracts, drastic economic concessions, and a guaranteed profit for each team. They wanted to ensure that no matter what poor business decisions teams make (economic, personal, et cetera) they can expect guaranteed profits."
Many teams are spending too much money on marginal talent. Most of the owners would tell you they have no problem paying the star-caliber players at the present rates, but they object to the salaries of players on the roster who don't contribute enough. So we can probably expect to see the owners push for some form of a hard salary cap that will make it possible for the various franchises to lose some of the deadwood collecting big money as they ride the bench.
This problem, too, is not really the players' fault. The league has taken in a huge influx of unproven talent by drafting and signing very young players. In the old days, college was a great place for players to mature and learn the game. Now, with an entry age of 19, we see too many pampered, immature and uncoachable players coming into the NBA. I believe this has hurt both the pro game and the college game. The colleges are losing their best players to the pros, and the NBA has to keep these players on the bench while they (hopefully) develop the basketball IQ and maturity to play at the NBA level. However, that development doesn't always happen; there are way too many washouts.
I have seen this process firsthand. When I coached for the Clippers, I had to deal with Michael Olowokandi, a player who perfectly fit the description "talented but uncoachable." At practice, I would attempt to point out Mr. Olowokandi's faults to him, ones he constantly repeated and resulted in lost possessions for the team or personal fouls that sent him to the bench. His reaction to my attempts to correct his bad habits was to take my input as a personal insult and embarrassment. He told me point-blank that he would not be criticized in front of the team. He stuck to his word and, as a result, had very few successful moments on the court playing the way he wanted to play. He took his place on the list of athletically gifted washouts who have been in and out of the league in the past 10 years.
While helping with the Lakers, I had the opportunity to work with Andrew Bynum, who wanted to learn and gained the knowledge he needed to be an important player for his team. Andrew was able to use some of the fundamental moves I showed him as a foundation for his game. Before he got to the Lakers, he hadn't played many games. At 17 years of age, he had played in only two high school seasons, and both of those seasons were shortened by injuries. However, Andrew worked hard to master a basic repertoire of skills at both ends of the court. As he gained confidence in his ability to get things done, he became a reliable factor for the Lakers' success. Andrew got there, but it took three years for it to come together.
I think the NBA needs to work out a way to make better use of its Development League or find a way to let players stay in college for a longer period of time. One-and-done is not working out to anyone's satisfaction. By losing its stars to the NBA, the college game is becoming marginalized. Which, ironically, has hurt the pro game. I feel players who have stayed in college are mature enough and have an in-depth understanding of the game that makes them better suited to make immediate contributions to a pro team. So in all of this, I'm rooting for the college game because it is the wellspring of professional basketball success.
Negotiations between the owners and players have not gotten off to a flying start, but I'm of the opinion that with so much at stake, the two parties will figure out some way for the next season to get rolling. If they can't work it out, there will be a lot of disappointed fans. Even some of the players are planning for the worst. Deron Williams announced he has an agreement in principal to play in Turkey if the negotiations are not fruitful here in the U.S. Leagues in Europe, Latin America and Asia might be the winners if this lockout is not solved soon.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and the author of several New York Times best-selling books.
The issues are complex and the stakes are high, but the NBA's labor issues can be addressed if the owners can find ways to tweak the game's financial structure.