As the calendar flips to August, the NBA still unmoved with a take-it-or-leave-it offer for the Players Association, here’s the question the union ought to be asking itself: Why is the easiest, most logical target in this labor Armageddon untouched, unscathed and remarkably unchallenged?
Why is the union so afraid of David Stern?
The union talks about the owners, and it never registers with the public. The owners are a vague, fairly anonymous cast of characters who elicit no loathing, no emotion. Hard to rip Mark Cuban when he’s willing to go deep into the luxury tax, lose money and win a championship. Most fans wish he owned their team, instead of some of these deadbeats. And yet, Stern is the figure who most fans are dubious over, from his iron-fist control of officiating, to his complicity in hustling the Sonics out of Seattle, to his arrogance of ruling the league like a small-town mayor without term limits.
The reason for the union finally scheduling a meeting with the owners on Monday in New York City is simple: Union officials are trying to convince the players they’re doing something, but it’s worthless. This is a show. There’s nothing to negotiate, nothing to discuss. The NBA commissioner has made sure of it. Stern promised a new crop of owners that should they buy into the NBA, he’d give them the most one-sided labor deal in the history of sports. No fan has sympathy for these two sides, nor should they. Just understand this, though: When the NBA goes silent for a full year following a most wildly successful season, Stern will deserve full blame for the sport’s shutdown.
He won’t stand up to these owners, and why should he? He has the greatest job in sports, and someday soon he’ll be the highest-paid player in the NBA. Stern doesn’t need to push his owners on revenue sharing – the most viable solution for long-term league solvency – when it’s so much easier to go after the players and shut the sport down. He’s taking the easy way out, but it’s understandable considering the staggering salary these owners pay him.
Strange, but the union never has the courage to bring up the mystery surrounding Stern’s salary. Many owners don’t even know what Stern makes. “I’d say three or less know,” one NBA owner told Yahoo! Sports. Several believe it’s somewhere in the range of $20 million to $23 million a year, but no one knows for sure. Maybe it’s more than that, but the fact that some owners don’t know the answer is beyond belief.
Mostly, it speaks to the authoritarian culture created within the league office, and how Stern carries it out through the NBA. Some younger owners have been warned to never push the issue with him, never ask, because it’s simply unadvisable to get on the wrong side of the commissioner.
Everyone is so scared of Stern. They want to work in the league again, and know he has the power to crush them. This is part of the reason so many are watching Players Association president Derek Fisher(notes) closely now. Will he ever come out swinging at Stern? After all, from owners to team executives to agents, everyone knows the dirty little secret of that job. Play ball with Stern in labor talks, and history shows the league will take care of you.
Bob Lanier has been on scholarship as an NBA ambassador for two decades. Isiah Thomas was given part ownership and the general manager's job with the expansion Toronto Raptors. When that imploded, Thomas landed a league-sanctioned analyst’s job for NBC. Lanier and Thomas were smart and tough in processes, but Stern’s message is hard to miss. Eventually, you’ll all work for us again.
After retiring with the Detroit Pistons, Michael Curry scored a job as the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations. Antonio Davis has an NBA television job. In labor talks, they were considered the enemy, but the underlying message for everyone in that job is unmistakable. Don’t push Stern too hard, don’t go nuclear. It goes on and on.
So, yes, everyone waits on Fisher now. He has big aspirations post-basketball, big possibilities. Stern knows it, too. It’s no accident that Stern’s deputy, Adam Silver, fawns over Fisher in stories. Oh, it’s so great to have him across the negotiating table. Yes, that’s just what the union rank and file should want to hear.
Will Fisher ever try throwing haymakers with the commissioner? He’s the consummate politician, but reason will get the union nowhere with these owners. The NBA doesn’t want negotiation, it wants capitulation. That’s why Monday’s talks were a waste of time, why nothing will happen until November and December when the players start missing checks. That’s when these owners – whatever they pay Stern – expect him to come for the kill, come to take everything back. If the players put up a fight, there’s no basketball this season. And that will be on David Stern, always and forever. There’s a case to be made in public now, the case of the commissioner, and now is the time to find out whether the union has the stomach for it.