NEW YORK – For the bleakest days of these labor talks, David Stern chose the Lowell on 63rd Street and the corner of Lexington Avenue. The hotel has a sparse lobby, unable to manage a small pack of reporters covering the NBA labor meetings. The commissioner won’t use ballrooms for news conferences, refusing to drape the background with the NBA logo. And when it was time again for one of his lockouts to cost regular-season games, he chose a small swath of sidewalk under the hotel canopy to deliver his damning proclamation.
Stern’s always wanted the glory of the commissioner’s seat, but never the light that comes with his failings. This labor fight is the championship series of Stern's career. He's overseeing the ultimate owners' hustle to shut down the sport because they think they can squeeze far more money than they need to simply stabilize financial losses and bring the league better competitive balance.
The owners want it all, and Stern’s forever been the man to bully people to their knees. This is a mission to make his richest owners even richer, ultimately allowing him to reap the bonuses and rewards that come to a union-breaking CEO. Yes, Stern and the hardliners shut down the NBA season Monday, and still Stern didn’t have the stomach to stand with the NBA logo in the background. The most sanctioned, most scripted event of his life, and he still couldn’t own it.
As much as anything Stern wants his professional shame in the shadows, narrowing the scope, the coverage. For Stern, the strategy is simple: Step out of the way, and let the players impale themselves in the public eye. Two weeks of the regular season are gone, more promise to be wiped away, and Stern will feed that public desire to tear apart his star players and feed into all the worst stereotypes. Only, this lockout will eventually end, and he’ll need to repair those images to make the NBA thrive again.
Stern is the master manipulator, and that’s never been easier to see. Throughout these talks, he’s had the Players Association leadership on a string. His agenda, his deadlines, his conditions to meet. One minute, the union’s calling for player meetings in Miami and Los Angeles, urging players to get on planes. Emails went out with locations and times, players purchased airline tickets. And then Stern says he wants to negotiate more, pushes back artificial deadlines of his creation, and soon the union is hastily canceling the player meetings and retreating back to his bargaining table.
Sometimes, the players union makes it so easy for the NBA. Before the talks fell apart without a deal on Monday, Players Association president Derek Fisher(notes) had an idea: Let’s flood people’s Twitter timelines with pointless catch phrases and hashtags, a plan born from the NFLPA and "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training." “Let us play,” Fisher told the players to post, forgetting that the public’s response – besides un-following his Twitter account out of sheer annoyance – was to tell the players to simply take the deal the owners were offering.
This wasn’t an idea out of the union’s smartest PR mind, Dan Wasserman, but one of the consulting pockets of the Players Association that do nothing but waste the players’ dues. Before you know it, there was Kenyon Martin(notes) calling for his “haters” to die of "full-blown AIDS," and inviting everyone else giving him a hard time on Twitter to send along a home address, so he could come to your house and “kick your ass.”
Martin isn’t the norm, but he’s who many people want to believe populate this NBA. And why give them the chance on Monday, when the players could’ve let Stern have the bad-guy stage all to himself?
For better or worse, NBA players will never win public sympathy. They have every right to this labor fight, but it is their fight and their fight alone. It isn’t shared with the fans, the arena workers, no one. The sooner they understand that, the easier this will go for them. Forget the PR fight – just win the fight.
All along, it seemed Wasserman’s plan had been for the players to say as little as possible, and never, ever engage the public for sympathy. Eventually, these lockouts always come back to the salaries, and nobody cares if someone’s salary will drop from $5 million to $3 million. No one.
Which is why the union’s job sometimes is to protect the players from themselves, and spare the guys from the delusional world in which they exist. Too many players are missing filters, self-awareness and context about the world surrounding them. The Players Association wins far more support centralizing its message with Fisher and Hunter, with its stars, than it does letting its player masses go on a largely misguided, and entirely pointless, freelance binge. It was a desperate, transparent outreach to fans and no one was buying it.
“What the hell was going to happen with that?” one agent wondered. “Is the public supposed to march on David Stern’s office and demand justice for the players now?”
[Related: NBA players frustrated by game cancellations]
And that’s the sad, dark place that finds the NBA now: When it should be delivering an encore to one of its most successful seasons ever, it’s reduced to old times: Stern pulling the strings, manipulating the union, the fans, the players. Everyone. He knows this terrain, and knows how to win at any cost.
The owners "are more dug in than before, but it goes back to a comment David made to me several years ago,” Hunter said. “ ‘This is what my owners have to have.’ And I said, ‘The only way you’re going to get that is if you’re prepared to lock us out for a year or two.’ And he’s indicated to me that they’re willing to do it.
“So my belief is that everything he’s done is demonstrating that he’s following that script.”
It is a script, and this ends when Stern’s done administering a beating on behalf of his owners. Maybe the NBA comes back for a 50-game season, maybe it loses everything. Whatever happens, David Stern, the great illusionist, will dictate the machinations, because this year belongs to him the way it won’t belong to LeBron James(notes) and Kobe Bryant(notes).
So, there was the biggest star in the sport waddling onto the sidewalk on 63rd Street in Manhattan on Monday night without the kind of big-stage, big-event scene that the commissioner always loves for himself in the good times. He knows the drill now: Step out of the way, and let the angry mobs run past him and the owners. Let them chase his players down the street, around the corner and all the way to the lockout’s end and beyond.
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- David Stern