- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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The biggest problem with the NBA is that the principal players in this lockout saga weren't selfish enough. That's how we got to this point, with a season that has yet to begin and might never do so. If the key figures had been thinking of themselves and their legacies, we'd be looking ahead to the Celtics playing the Heat this week instead of staring down at the ashes from a charred league and scorched reputations.
They didn't have to be altruistic, although that would have been nice. Had they resolved the differences on the periphery of an agreement that would bring $2 billion to each side, it also would have brought money to the arena workers and team employees who can't afford to go without paychecks in order to prove a point. It would have brought enjoyment to the fans whose interest and money make this league possible in the first place. But the NBA and its players didn't have to consider any of those things. Simply being self-centered would have done it. A little more concern for which adjectives would be used around their names in the historical record could have kept them and their league from one of its darkest episodes. Had they cared more about preserving their own images, the ancillary benefits would have been enormous, to use one of David Stern's favorite words.
It starts with Stern, the commissioner who led the NBA's unprecedented growth over a quarter of a century. But what's the point in having television deals from Chicago to China if you don't have any games to show? Twice the league has ground ashore with Stern at the helm; if he were a ship's captain, he'd have his license revoked. And let's not forget that Stern also employed a referee who phoned in confidential information and betting tips from NBA arenas to his gambling buddies. The more negative stories that continue to be added to the narrative, the harder it is to write them off as mere blips. Ask baseball commissioner Bud Selig or NHL commissioner Gary Bettman what happens when there's a blank entry sticking out on your league's list of all-time champions. Your reputation never recovers, and the fans or media are predisposed to thinking you'll get things wrong, not right.
Equally culpable is Stern's negotiating counterpart, Billy Hunter, who will be remembered as the union leader who decided that the best course of action was to remove himself from the equation. The biggest problem for Hunter is that he came to that realization far too late in the process. What a stunning waste of time and salary. It would be better to go down as the union executive who signed off on a bad deal than one who couldn't get a deal done at all. Can you name the union leaders who agreed to the salary cap or the rookie wage scale? I doubt it. Those were setbacks for the players as well, but at least no games were lost in the process, which is why you've never bothered to ask who was responsible.
Union leaders are like game officials: the less we hear their names, the better the job they're doing. Baseball has enjoyed such a long period of labor peace, I needed a Google search to learn the name of the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. I still have no idea what Michael Weiner looks like. Those are both good things.
I wish one of the dovish owners had stood up and tried to shame his hawk colleagues into signing a deal, even if it meant incurring a heavy fine from Stern. As long as Heat owner Micky Arison was going to get docked 500 large for a couple of harmless tweets (including an lol @Donald Sterling), he should have named names and called out all the owners who were impediments to getting a deal done. That would've been enough to get me to sign up for a trip on one of Arison's Carnival cruise ships to help him defer the cost of the fine.
Some say Stern had to call in every favor he could just to present this deal to the players, unpalatable as it might have seemed to them. There were enough owners who thought even a 50/50 split was offering too much to the players. Michael Jordan has been identified as one of those owners. Jordan, coming up on a decade since his last NBA jump shot, is going to be known to the next generation of potential shoe buyers as a Scrooge-like owner, not an iconic basketball player. It's similar to the way kids today think of Bruce Jenner as the powerless male in the Kardashian household, not the Olympic decathlon champion who was on Wheaties boxes before they were born. Jordan always tried to avoid controversy as a player because he wanted to preserve his image, but now this version of him is retroactively damaging the player brand. Jordan single-handedly elevated the league in the 1990s. But our freshest memory is of someone who helped lead the NBA down a dark path.
For a moment Kobe Bryant seemed to be the one person who did see the risk to his legacy, including what could be his last shot to match Jordan's ring count of six. Kobe also needs five seasons of scoring over 2,000 points in order to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA's all-time leading scorer. It would be a lot easier for him to make one of those seasons this year, at age 33, then to replace it with a year when he'll be 38. And let's not forget that Kobe literally has more to lose than any other player this season, as he was scheduled to make a league-high salary of $25.2 million. That's why he came out in favor of accepting the owners' proposed 50/50 offer. He clearly had the most at stake. Maybe now, in his newfound free time, he can finally sign that contract the Italian team general manager kept swearing was a done deal. Arrivederci.
So long to all the suckers. They didn't realize how easily they could be replaced. Scott Van Pelt was able to move his radio show along with three simple words: "NFL Week 10." Just like that, the lockout issues were forgotten, left in the previous hour, and he was on to topics listeners really cared about.
What the NBA, particularly the players, failed to realize is that there's a difference between valuable and necessary. Yes, fans and sponsors are willing to pay a high price for the product. But they're also capable of living without it. It's not essential. That's why the players had no leverage. Fans want to see them play, but they weren't clamoring for it. No one set up tents outside the arenas and refused to leave until the lockout ended.
It's why the players were never going to get a deal they liked. Maybe they found the owners' last offer too restrictive, with too many limits on what the higher-spending (and likely better) teams could do. It still was a better deal than the hard-cap, salary-rollback, mid-level-exception-eliminating proposal that had been forecast for months. I now believe those most onerous threats were just a long con by the owners, a protracted setup to make this version of the collective bargaining agreement seem benign.
I still can't believe that after the players made the huge sacrifice of $300 million a year by dropping down to a 50 percent share of revenue, they would balk at the thought of a few million dollars for a few players -- which is what the remaining system issue differences amount to.
But the players felt betrayed. "The deal was, 'If we give you the money back, give us the system issues,'" an agent said in a text message. "And the NBA replied, 'We will take both, thank you.'"
The owners couldn't quit while they were ahead, the players couldn't call it a night when they were less behind. No one emerged as a hero, no one was willing to risk a few skeptical looks from his colleagues in order to be seen as a savior in the public eye.
One of the players' complaints over an owner proposal was that the league's growth rate to get to a point where the players could retain 51 percent of the revenue would never happen. Well, that's guaranteed now. These shortsighted negotiators didn't just wipe out games, they wiped out momentum. They've turned away fans.
What's the legacy for all those responsible? Perhaps it can be summarized in a bitter text I received from my South Florida friend who got swept up in the Heat hype last season, went to NBA games for the first time and (with some encouragement from me via text messages) became so obsessed with the NBA that she rearranged her schedule to watch playoff games no matter which teams were in action. On Tuesday, that one-time excitement was replaced with resentment:
"U got me into a sport that I can't even watch."
Don't blame me. Blame the people who didn't care about their legacies.
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann