NBA AM: Is David Stern Bluffing?
NBA Commissioner David Stern wasn’t draped in a black cloak or wielding a scythe when he emerged from Wednesday’s negotiation session, but by describing the current state of the league’s lockout as being “at a period of enormous opportunity and great risk” he was making one of his most dire and definitive statements to date: The NBA season isn’t dead YET, but if the players don’t agree to our terms this weekend…
Maybe it’s unfair to put words in the commissioner’s mouth. League spokesman Tim Frank told USA Today’s J. Michael Falgoust that “it’s simply not true” that Stern is threatening to cancel the season on Friday—a claim that ESPN.com’s Marc Stein later made in a Thursday-morning piece:
“When NBA labor talks resume Friday, NBA commissioner David Stern is planning to threaten players with the cancellation of the entire 2011-2012 season if the sides haven’t made major progress toward a deal by the end of the weekend, according to sources close to the talks.”
Stein’s sources and Frank might disagree on whether Stern is already willing to throw away the season (Sports Illustrated’s Sam Amick has been told by sources that Stern told the union that Jan. 7 is the deadline to get a deal done for this season), but no one can deny that the commissioner is tightening the screws.
“I’m focused on, let’s get the two committees in and see whether they can either have a season or not have a season, and that’s what’s at risk this weekend,” Stern told reporters.
Yes, from a long-term, macrocosmic perspective this is an important weekend. But these have all been important weekends leading up to the latest rounds of negotiations and it’s absurd to consider prematurely taking your ball and going home simply because the union doesn’t want to play by your rules and deadlines. Realistically, Stern wants the players to bring their best offer at some point this weekend. Maybe the lawyer in him knows a deal is close, and if exerting maximum pressure gets it done, what’s the harm?
Well Stern’s comments aren’t innocuous. Logically, players’ willingness to make concessions aren’t helped by the commissioner’s do-or-die rhetoric; and, more importantly, fans are going to lose interest as phony deadlines continue to pass. If this supposedly crucial weekend fails to produce even a handshake in the wake of Stern’s statement, the message to fans will be loud and clear: you can’t count on the NBA.
Of all the prophetic warnings being tossed around, perhaps the most practical and salient thoughts came from former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy.
“What’s interesting to me is, when you’re in professional sports sometimes, you get the impression that people care more than they really do,” Van Gundy told legendary Star-Ledger columnist Dave D’Alessandro. “And you better be careful, because there are other things people can do with their income.”
Van Gundy knows better than most as he coached the Knicks to the Finals during the lockout-shortened (and largely ignored) 1999 season.
“I think you can be drawn a false sense of security that ‘they came before, so they’ll always come.’ But right now, I don’t hear anyone talking about the NBA at all, except for the diehards,” Van Gundy said.
“That’s the thing: We don’t know (if this lockout could be fatal),” he continued. “But neither do the people that are covering the lockout, or participating in the lockout. No one knows. If history is the best predictor on our future behavior, the support will grow back eventually… But will it be to the same level? I just don’t know. I think sometimes you get a bit carried away with your own issues and don’t notice what’s happening on the outside.”
Van Gundy goes on to point out something that even Stern has acknowledged: the NFL has more fans than the NBA does.
That means league officials can’t take any solace from the NFL’s thriving popularity in the wake of its own lockout. In fact, football’s popularity might have been preserved because its season isn’t as cumbersome as the NBA’s.
“Face it, whether you’re an NFL season-ticket holder and have to buy 10 games, it’s on weekends and Monday nights—it’s predictable, it doesn’t change your lifestyle,” Van Gundy said. “Even the fans of the worst [NFL] teams don’t complain; they’re coming back, because it’s a weekly tradition.
“But the season-ticket holder in the NBA is different,” Van Gundy continued. “People split the package. It’s a major time and financial commitment. I’m not trying to be gloom and doom here. It’s just that people don’t have the disposable income they used to have, and it’s not like they’re pining for NBA basketball… I just worry at some point—I know at some point—that some sport will go too far. It just will. Whatever that entails.”
Friday’s meetings will include about half the league’s owners and several marquee players. It’s not likely that anyone at the session will share Van Gundy’s perspective, but it should be in the back of people’s minds. Van Gundy, through his experiences as a former coach and an announcer, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the sport. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge America’s reaction to a labor dispute from inside the negotiations, but Van Gundy can articulate something that Stern and union executive director Billy Hunter cannot: Americans have lost patience with bad news.
The economy isn’t getting any better and neither the players nor the owners have anyone’s sympathy. For Stern to publically muse that the season is in the balance this weekend is irresponsible. It shows a disconnect with the public, which only wants to hear that concessions are being made by two parties that are committed to getting a deal done. Sports are supposed to be a welcome distraction to the hardships of all of our lives. Stern only reminded us that almost everything we enjoy can be taken away by a room full of lawyers.
Where Does the Armoire Go?
As HOOPSWORLD’s Steve Kyler and Alex Kennedy have noted, NBA guard Delonte West has taken a job moving furniture. Pictures have been released on Twitter and even West’s contract from Regency Furniture has been made public. West Tweeted that he “needs a second job to stay afloat during the lockout” despite the fact that he’s pocketed over $14 million during his NBA career.
As always, it’s tough to tell what to make of West’s latest news. If he’s strapped for cash, that’s really disappointing. If he’s trying to stay busy during the lockout, that’s another issue. But if he’s trying to make a point, then it’s lost on everyone.
Check Out: Sheridan Hoops
Chris Sheridan thinks the 50-50 or a 51-49 revenue split is possible, and that could seriously help to ensure that the NBA does have a season this year. To see Sheridan’s prediction on what the next collective bargaining agreement might look like, give him a read at SheridanHoops.com.
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