NEW YORK – Once David Stern had discovered his owners wanted to march one of their biggest spenders into a mediation session and deliver the Players Association a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, it came to no surprise that he disappeared to the peace of his Westchester County home. Whatever you want to say about the NBA commissioner, Stern has long craved confrontation. And yet, suddenly, he had a doctor’s note to bail with the oldest and most suspicious of NBA DNP’s: flu-like symptoms.
All hell promised to unleash in the conference room of the Sheraton Hotel on the 52nd Street and Seventh Avenue. So bad that the man who wrote the book on collective bargaining guerilla warfare had retreated to the suburbs and left these unruly proceedings to someone who truly despises confrontation. Nevertheless, Portland Trail Blazers billionaire Paul Allen stepped out of the shadows, declared himself as the hardest line of the hardliners and played the part of the improbable boogeyman in these dysfunctional labor talks.
“Here came the Grim Reaper,” one exasperated union official sighed in a quiet corridor Thursday night.
For all the talk about the Robert Sarvers, the most strident of the hardliners thrust himself to the forefront of fear that this could be a lost basketball season. For the past 15 years, Allen’s been the wildest of wild spenders, the salary cap-buster hell-bent on buying an NBA title. Outrageous contracts, $3 million a pop to purchase late draft picks. And now, the NBA's board of governors found him the perfect candidate to be the bearer of gloom and doom in Thursday’s meeting, even when a union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said: “I thought we were making progress toward a deal.”
These are the mind games the owners will play with the players, all the way to a January deadline to cancel the season. They’ll be Lucy to the players’ Charlie Brown, pulling that ball away again and again. This is a high-stakes game full of backward agendas and hidden motives. Here’s the scariest part of it all for those who want labor talks to have a puncher’s chance at saving the season: Allen appears to be checking out on the Blazers, and there’s suspicion that his motives center on saving as much money as possible in this CBA to eventually ready his franchise for a sale.
“He’s gone the other way, the complete other way,” a high-ranking league official told Yahoo! Sports. “He’s been the most vociferous lately that [the owners] have given up too much to the players, that they should be holding out for a hard cap, for 40 percent to the players [on the revenue split]. No one has gone after the labor committee harder about this than him.”
Nearly three weeks ago, the players themselves had brought their own fiercely private, peculiar force into the room: the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett(notes). Garnett came out of nowhere in these talks, and owners believed his strident railing derailed momentum toward a deal in early October.
Now, it was management’s turn. It was Allen, who has spent the GNP of third-world countries in pursuit of an NBA title, and now, as one NBA front-office executive calls him: “He’s sort of turned into this era’s Howard Hughes.”
The season’s in genuine jeopardy now because powerbrokers like Allen are uniting with nickel-and-dimers like Sarver in a common cause: How do I get out of NBA ownership with maximum profit, minimal pain? These are simply men gutting costs to eventually get the best price and sell those franchises. In his life, Allen has a history of disengaging people and things once he loses interest, and that appears to be happening now.
“The worst thing for the Blazers are not the injuries, but Paul losing interest,” said a league official connected to the organization. “And once he loses interest in anything, he doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. He can’t win anymore, so he’s going to literally take his ball and go home.”
This is the NBA left to Stern, the players and the fans: Owners like Allen, who are done with it. Over the league, over the love of owning teams. Those aren’t the overwhelming agendas in the room, but it’s a part now. Paul Allen’s made it a huge part.
After 24 hours of mediation over Tuesday and Wednesday, the two sides were making progress. Kessler insisted “something happened in the board of governors meeting.” This was Wednesday night, between the second and third consecutive bargaining sessions, and, yes, something did happen.
Allen walked into the St. Regis Hotel, and the hardliners loved that they suddenly had the biggest spender of all firmly on the side of shutdown, of NBA Armageddon. What’s more, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck presented a revenue-sharing plan that, sources said, left some in the room confused and uncertain. There was hardly a united front walking out of the room on how that would work, on how it would benefit the league.
The union had its suspicions over that meeting, over the hardliners ruling the day again. This conspired to set a terrible tone for Thursday’s talks, where the owners marched Allen into the room like he was the biggest swinging bat in the room. Allen’s awkward sometimes, hates public discourses and hadn’t come to articulate a case. He was a presence to stand there, the richest American owner in sports warning the players that he was now an ally of the dark side. The owners knew Allen carried a symbolism with him, an unspoken sense that even the biggest, wildest, most reckless of spenders wanted a system to save themselves from themselves. And now, they wanted it completely out of the players’ take. More than a billion dollars in givebacks by the players isn’t enough to even keep talking for some of these owners, and that’s a problem here.
Afterward, Players Association executive director Billy Hunter would say: “They said Paul was there because the owners were of the position that they had given up too much in the negotiations and he was there to reaffirm their position.”
So, the owners told the union they wouldn’t negotiate further issues until they agreed to drop down to a 50-50 split of revenue. Hunter tried to save the discussions, and made a case directly to Allen in the Sheraton conference room. Listen, Hunter said, let’s set aside the revenue split discussion and go back to the system issues: the luxury tax, the Bird rights, exceptions and so on.
Only, Hunter’s words were met with a blank stare from Allen.
“Paul didn’t respond,” Hunter said. “He was just … in the room.”
That’s Allen. No confrontations, no arguments. His old general managers learned this: When he’s done with you, he just stops talking to you. Just ignores you. Just wishes you’d go away. All of this speaks to his growing disconnect to the Blazers. Thirteen years ago, Allen couldn’t wait for the lockout to end. He believed the Blazers were on the cusp of a championship run, and desperately wanted a season. Whatever it cost, he was willing to pay. Damon Stoudamire was a free agent, had a marketplace that wouldn’t have paid him north of $50 million. Allen didn’t care. He wanted everyone in training camp for Day One, wanted them winning out of the gate, and he peeled off an $80 million contract for Stoudamire because, well, he was Paul Allen and he could.
And now, he fired his latest GM, Rich Cho, after just one season. Why? Those within the Blazers believe that it was simple: Cho told Allen the truth. The Blazers aren’t contenders, that they’ll have to take a step back, maybe two, before they can start going forward again.
“He didn’t want to hear that,” one league official with knowledge of the dynamic said. “This disconnect with Rich? It was this: He told Paul the truth. And Allen has no interest in going sideways now. But now [Allen’s] realizing that if he can’t win big in the NBA, well, he doesn’t want to lose money.
“So now, after a health scare, after his team has fallen off, they send him into the meeting to be the messenger of gloom and doom to the players. He’s all right with doing that now, because I don’t think he cares anymore.”
How else do you explain that Allen still hasn’t hired a GM to replace Cho? This lockout could’ve ended, and the Blazers would’ve had no one in place to make such important decisions as getting rid of Brandon Roy(notes) with the impending amnesty clause or re-signing Greg Oden(notes).
In the beginning, Blazers president Larry Miller made a run at popular former Suns GM, Steve Kerr, sources said. Kerr, who played in Portland for a season, doesn’t want to be a GM again, and wouldn’t get into talks with the Blazers. Portland then brought several solid, competent candidates into town for interviews and rejected every one of them. Lately, the Blazers have tried to engage several prominent league GMs about discussing the job, and that hasn’t worked. The most recent discussed within the organization, sources said, has been the Utah Jazz's Kevin O’Connor, but there’s no indication they even reached out to him.
Now, it appears Allen will just let Miller and his recent interim GM, Chad Buchanan, take over the duties for the season. Make no mistake, Allen has slowly, surely stopped looking at the Blazers like his crown jewel, perhaps now considering them as just another industry he needs to get lean before he moves it.
For Allen, that’s great. For the NBA, it’s trouble. Because his agenda – and that of several owners – is making these teams more palatable for prospective buyers. And that’ll come at whatever the consequences to the league’s public standing, relationships with its players, its fans, its future. This has to be disconcerting to Stern, who doesn’t want to lose the season. It’s strange, though: You have one commissioner, Stern, who’s fighting to end this and preserve his legacy. And another, Silver, the deputy, who’s fighting to show these owners that he’s the tough guy they should want as the next in line.
That’s why Silver was willing to come out on Thursday night, throw out a crazy, convoluted tale of events he knew – just knew – the union would have to loudly, bluntly set the record straight on. The NBA knows when the Players Association gets worked up, gets publicly frustrated, the public turns on them. It’s a vicious cycle, and Derek Fisher(notes) understands it. “I do,” he told Yahoo! Sports, “and we measure what we’re going to say, but in the end, we have to let our constituents, our players, know our version of things, what really happened.”
So Silver sat there with San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor committee, and didn’t seem to notice when his top-ranking labor owner violated one of the NBA’s own lockout mandates, dropping Tim Duncan’s(notes) name in the news conference. Holt was talking about the past profitability of his small-market Spurs, and how much Duncan and all those playoff runs had kept the franchise in the black. Holt has never seemed to relish the public stage, but Silver loves it. He’s the pitbull deputy for the ultimate pitbull commissioner, and that meeting on Thursday was like red meat for the hard-line owners.
This was like the Democrats marching a converted Karl Rove into the national convention, or the Republicans turning out a Kennedy. Here was the biggest, swinging bat in the room at the Sheraton in midtown Manhattan, Paul Allen, the highest-priced messenger in the history of collective bargaining talks. And the message was delivered to the players: We’re taking everyone in basketball to hell and back now.
Yes sir, the grim reaper walked into the room, and progress on ending the lockout was obliterated. So planned, so predictable, the man who wrote the playbook on labor guerilla warfare, David Stern, got a doctor’s note and hustled home to the suburbs. All these years Paul Allen listened to those owners complain about how much money he spent trying to win, all these years he was the reason they wanted a lockout, needed a new system. And now, the richest American owner in sports is fighting the fight, shoulder to shoulder, to change a system that he himself had made such a mockery.
Everyone else wants the NBA back in their lives, and slowly, surely its seems that the man responsible for blowing everything up in Times Square wants nothing more than to be done with it all.
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