DALLAS – As snow unexpectedly blanketed Dallas on Thursday, it was a reminder that this season’s All-Star weekend promises to be like no other. The All-Star Game will be played in an NFL stadium in front of a crowd that could exceed 90,000. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant(notes), who owns the league’s top-selling jersey, won’t suit up because of a sore ankle. Three other All-Stars will miss Sunday’s game because of injuries. LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes), two of the NBA’s biggest stars, could be less than five months away from changing teams.
All of which could be overshadowed by the NBA’s impending labor battle. The league’s collective bargaining agreement expires after next season, and the owners have already sent a wide-ranging proposal to the players that promises to change the way the NBA does business. The players are expected to respond this weekend, and many view a lockout as a distinct possibility for the summer of 2011.
On the eve of the league’s big weekend, NBA commissioner David Stern took a few minutes to address some of these topics with Yahoo! Sports.
Q: With the CBA negotiations set to start, what do you think the chances are of a lockout? Are you feeling optimistic or concerned?
Stern: Our job is to make sure that we have a successor agreement and we have plenty of time to do that. The rest is just idle speculation and that doesn’t get me any place. I don’t feel good or bad. This is business as usual. We have a deal to make and we have to work on it. It’s not going to happen if we don’t meet.
Q: With ticket sales and sponsorship revenue down because of the recession, are there some owners who could actually benefit from a lockout? How does the current situation differ from [the last lockout] in 1999?
Stern: A work stoppage doesn’t benefit anybody. I think what has happened is – I don’t remember precisely the numbers – we have 10 years of numbers to sort of confirm to us that we need to have a system that can be better sustained for the business of our league, that can continue to reward our players for their extraordinary talent but can also be a model for causing our owners to make the kinds of investments that are necessary to grow our sport.
Q: Is there any danger of the NBA contracting some teams?
Stern: We don’t have any plans for contraction. I would say we’re not going to be challenged from a revenue standpoint. But we are challenged from an expense perspective. Our expenses are too high and we have to find a way to moderate them.
Stern: They’re two great players and the fans deserve the opportunity to see them. I hope [it’s debated]. I hope so. When you have a league of All-Stars and you choose one over the other, you’re always going to have somebody who’s asking about it.
Stern: I think Gilbert did something of which he is not proud. He apologized. He had to be dealt with. He did it and we [suspended] him as quickly as we would and now we are moving forward. I absolutely [expect them back].
Q: This summer’s free-agent market will be one of the biggest ever. Do you see that as a good thing, or are you concerned about some star players potentially leaving their teams?
Stern: It’s certainly something that’s getting a lot of attention and about which a lot is going to be written. I guess at a certain level that’s a good thing. Everybody is speculating and writing, ‘So-and-so is going, isn’t going. So-and-so is signing, isn’t signing.’ That’s kind of good if you want people to follow you and pay attention. We’ve always had superstars change addresses because we’ve always had a lot of superstars. But on balance, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. You tell me. Michael Jordan changed addresses. Shaquille O’Neal(notes) changed addresses. Charles Barkley changed addresses. We’ve had a lot of [stars], 15 or 20, that I can think of off the top. Not every player plays for one team his entire career. It happens.
Q: The New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets have suffered while trying to clear salary-cap space to become a player in the 2010 free-agency market. Are you worried about them alienating their fan bases in hopes of potentially making a big signing?
Stern: No. I think the Nets are performing at a level that they didn’t expect to perform at. It’s much lower than expected. But they are sitting there with everyone from Brook Lopez(notes) to Devin Harris(notes) to Courtney Lee(notes). They have what I think is a pretty strong group of players, but they just didn’t come together. But like many other teams you learn your lesson eventually and you don’t continue signing players that keep you perpetually over the [salary] cap and don’t really improve your team enough. We have teams that are trying to bring their payroll into line with their objectives. The same thing [with the Knicks].