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Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Save us from David Stern

By Tim Keown
ESPN.com

It's impossible to find a hero in the current NBA wasteland, but someone needs to save us from David Stern. The commissioner summoned his highest and mightiest high-and-mighty tone Monday to issue his most Olympian proclamations yet on the inability of the owners and players to come to a labor agreement and get on with the business of making all that money they can't seem to decide how to share.

It was yet another reminder of the most amazing aspect of this whole mess: Stern actually seems to be winning the public relations battle. His ability to spew arrogance and have it come across as genuine hurt, as if he's dealing with kids who just don't know what's good for them, has reached epic proportions.

Kobe Bryant & David Stern
David Stern isn't handing Kobe Bryant and the other players fancy jewelry this time around, and they know it.

Nuclear winter.

The players decided to blow it up.

Charade.

You've got to give it to the guy: He never loses his cool, and he always manages to look as though he has exhausted every fiber of his being attempting to let these misguided players know they just passed up the most wonderful opportunity. He's the clucking aunt who knows what's best for everybody. He always has dinner on the table two hours before anyone shows up, just so he can complain that they're late.

Amid the preposterous rhetoric, it's always good to remember that the owners started this. It's easy to forget this is a lockout and not a strike. And although it's possible there are NBA teams losing money, this whole operation -- charade, even -- is designed to allow the owners to use the players to save them from themselves.

"We were very close, and the players decided to blow it up," Stern said. The players, according to him, are "hell-bent on destruction."

Such angry, militaristic words delivered in such a resigned, avuncular tone. Going in, we all knew this was going to get ugly, right? Everyone knew the owners were playing for keeps this time, and they're holding up their end. The siren call was sounded after the NBA Finals in June, when Charles Barkley predicted there would be no season this season.

But this has exceeded most expectations of nastiness, and Stern's strong-armed tactics are a big reason. Whatever you think about who's right and who's wrong, there's no room for debate on that topic. These latest verbal bombs, issued from deep inside the saddest recesses of his jowls, are laughable. The NBPA's decision to disclaim is a "charade" and "irresponsible given the timing of it." In fact, the "timing of it" is simply a reflection of the union's exasperation with the process after months of trying to hold on to most of what it fought hard to achieve.

Throughout the process, Stern seems intent on infantilizing the players and their position. He figuratively pats them on the head -- he knows what's best for you, remember -- while employing questionable negotiating tactics.

David Stern
David Stern has done a good job selling the owners' side to the public.

Case in point: Prefacing a proposal by saying that if it's rejected, every subsequent proposal is going to get progressively worse. In truth, that's not negotiating at all. In most bargaining rooms, he would have been called an extortionist and tossed into the hallway. In certain circles, it's called blackmail.

(Let's pretend you and I are negotiating over a piece of property. You're selling, and you're asking $200,000. I believe this price is too high, so I counter with $150,000. You have 48 hours to deliberate, and, when you come back, you say, "The new price is $190,000, and if you don't accept, the price will go up from there." You just made it easy on me -- I'm off to look at the next piece of property.)

The players aren't pure. Far from it. In an economy that continues to struggle, it's difficult to find much in the way of sympathy for them. But it takes a certain amount of courage to do what they're doing. (Courage in the oh-no-what-now? sense, not courage in the take-the-mountain-to-save-your-buddy sense.) Like the NFL players before them, the NBA players are negotiating in the dark armed with a weak flashlight. To understand what you can demand, you need to know what the market can bear. But because the owners don't have to open their books, there's a limit to what the players know.

The players' decision to agree to a 50-50 revenue split was not some wild overestimation of their worth. It was the owners' proposal. It was a compromise from the previous proposals. It was the split that was on the table, the one that was going to get progressively (exponentially?) worse the longer it took to complete a deal. And now? Well, it probably will get worse.

The owners know they can hold out. They know the players are going to start calculating how much money they're losing by not playing. They know the players are going to start wondering whether it's really worth the trouble to hold out any longer for the relatively minor issues that remain undecided. The bigger problem, I'm guessing, is whether they're going to come back to the same deal they left behind.

But you've got to give it to Stern. He's the master of spin. He can look so doggone convincing, so hangdog honest, that you can momentarily forget he's a cut-throat businessman. There's one thing he never forgets, though: He's holding a winning hand, and he never has to show it.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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