SALT LAKE CITY – In the end, these debates turn to lost causes for the players. Buried between the sandbox foolery of the Chicago Bulls and Ben Wallace, there was a serious discussion to be had on the rights of individual expression.
Yet, NBA Players Association president Derek Fisher knows how these conversations are predisposed to perish.
Whatever the issue, the solution is simple.
It's this, Fisher says: " 'We're spoiled and we get paid all this money, so basically just shut up and take whatever is handed to you.' "
And that's how it's gone with Wallace this week. The story of Scott Skiles' rules meeting Wallace's will captured the public's attention for a day or so, but it quickly dissolved into the following fact: Big Ben makes $60 million.
What's he complaining about?
Just take that headband off.
Fisher has been on the phone with NBAPA executive director Billy Hunter and his player reps, and there's nothing they can do for Wallace. Headbands are an approved part of the NBA uniform, but they're against Bulls policy. This is a debate that the players can't win in the court of public opinion, and like most of the others, assuredly can't win in court.
Whatever David Stern wants, he gets. From the dress code to the new dime-store basketballs, from the quick-triggered technical fouls to banished head and sweat bands, the NBA's liberal commissioner keeps looking like he's governing further and further to the right.
"Commissioner Stern has freewill to lay down the rules on the court," Fisher said. "We can fight it as long as we want to, but I don't know if there are any arbitrators who will overturn it."
Fisher, the Utah Jazz guard, has taken this thankless job from out-of-the-league Antonio Davis and tries to walk that line between union activist and realist. He has to pick his spots, his fights, wisely because the more the players complain, the more his constituency plays itself into the hands of ownership.
"Things get handed down and then we have to adjust," Fisher said. "And when we try to stand up for what we believe is fair and right in a collective bargaining process, often times we're left with that stigma of being overpaid guys who are always looking for something else. … We've very rarely been sought out for advice before things have been decided."
Over the past week, what troubles Fisher most is this: They picked a perfectly solid citizen to make an example of in Chicago, a player who is the ultimate success story in the sport and a self-made star out of Division II ball. No one ever gave Wallace much of a shot to make a living in the NBA, but he kept coming and coming.
Now, Wallace is getting dismissed as easily as one of those teenage knuckleheads who thought paying his dues was going to those damn SAT prep classes at sneaker camp.
"The situation in Chicago is difficult for us," Fisher said. "Ben has represented the league very well and always been a guy who has stood for things that are good about our game. But when it comes to uniform and headband and sweatband, that's where it starts to get dicey. You're taking away an individual's choice, taking away what he feels comfortable playing in. Today, it's the headband.
"Well, George Steinbrenner doesn't allow his players to wear facial hair …"
That's the issue here: Where's this going? All of this, the union fears, leads them down the slippery slope toward the uniformity of the NFL. Football ownership has done genius work to strip its sport of individualism and make the parts interchangeable with shorter contracts and more modest guarantees.
Rest assured, Stern dismisses such theories, insisting always that the fact the NBA's players weren't hidden behind helmets and facemasks played a most monumental part in the intimacy that grew the sports' popularity.
Still, Fisher says: "It opens the door for Commissioner Stern and our owners to close the gap between what guys are being compensated and what their real value is with the team. The more uniformed and the more things look the same, just like in football, you may end up with just one or two [players] who are franchise guys, have that big deal, but a lot of the rest of those guys are just year to year.
"We're trying to defend and hold onto the players' ability going forward to be able to earn as much of a living as his abilities will allow him."
Between now and then, Fisher is on a mission to mobilize the NBA's young superstars into action. LeBron James told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the union can count on him to start speaking up and upholding his stature in the sport. If nothing else, Fisher wants his term as president to be the return to the 1990s in the union, when Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing were the biggest, boldest voices in the game.
"In order for our union to carry a voice, we need those guys who are out front selling the tickets and the jerseys," Fisher said.
Even then, it isn't easy. There are debates to be had on these issues, genuine discussions, but sometimes it's too hard to hear over the shrill sounds screaming to shut up, sit down and count all that cash. For that reason alone, David Stern is unbeatable.
- David Stern