NEW YORK – Here was David Stern playing the lockout bogeyman on a city sidewalk, reaching past Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher(notes) to speak directly to the players with a doom-and-gloom prophecy. Come on down to the posh Manhattan hotel on Friday, stay the weekend, and let me show you all over again how the commissioner buries the NBA bodies. When Stern dictates this lockout is over, it ends.
That’s the hard truth, the hard road to labor peace. Stern's job is convincing the owners to pull off the press, take the 30-point victory and leave the floor with some grace and dignity.
This has been rigged for years and months and weeks, and here’s how a deal happens this weekend: In the carnage of a devastating collective bargaining loss for the union with billions of dollars redirected into owners' pockets, Stern has to give Hunter something to take back to the players, so that the union's bloodied, bruised and beaten executive director can still raise his arms and declare that, yes, we won.
Stern’s "going to make a real hard push to get a deal this weekend,” one team president told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday. “If the union makes a slight move, David will move.
“But the players have to blink first.”
When Stern decides to give Hunter an escape valve, this is over. When Stern can convince his owners to back off, this is over. Stern needs to give Hunter something to take back to the union, and say, “We won.” Maybe it’s the illusion of a soft salary cap, the preservation of the midlevel exception, a 50-50 revenue percentage split. Whatever. This isn’t about a fair deal, it’s about a deal the union can rationalize to the players for ratification.
Hunter has no leverage, and no way out. This isn’t about getting the players a great deal, it’s about getting out of this without the agents overthrowing him. The union keeps insisting its players will go the distance, sit out the season, and that's not happening. It sounds noble and strong, and there are players with the stomach to do it. Yet, there aren’t enough of them. What’s more, there’s the sobering understanding that the bad deal being offered now becomes worse in December.
This isn’t about right or wrong. Just or unjust. When the union didn’t decertify back in July, it was destined for this dark place. It’s too bad, too. Because the players have largely won the PR war. The public knows far more about the owners in the digital age, knows far more about their finances and agendas and, yes, incompetence.
Nevertheless, these cross-country exhibition games have been an awakening of sorts to the players, to everyone, about how much the players need the NBA’s machinery. They need its platform, its coaching, its competitive environment. There’s nothing but a devoted, narrow fan base that can watch these summer exhibitions. It’s bad basketball, and too much of it will devalue the NBA stars playing in the games.
The masses don’t want to watch LeBron James(notes) doing windmill dunks with defenders running out of the way. They want to watch him in the context of real competition, real stakes. This is foolery, and it has no staying power in a short summer – never mind a long lockout.
Several agents tried to plan blockbuster barnstorming tours of Asia, Australia, Europe, but they couldn’t find the corporate sponsors needed to make it a profitable endeavor. So, the big stars and the big owners are coming here for Friday’s meeting, and Stern won’t mind having them all in the room. He wants the players to hear all about how they’re going to lose money they’ll never get back by missing games now. And how they’re still going to get a bad deal later.
Back on All-Star weekend, Hunter had been bold in a locker-room address to the league's stars, insisting the union wouldn’t bow to Stern. He cornered the commissioner, ambushed him, and the players loved it. Stern lost his cool, and left them all stunned: He knew where the bodies were buried in the NBA, he said, because he had buried a lot of them himself.
[Related: NBA owners budge on hard salary cap demands]
The stars were stunned to hear Stern talk that way, and rallied around Hunter for the way he had gone after the commissioner, a bully of monumental acclaim. In the end, Stern does bury the bodies in the NBA. This death march to a brutal deal was the union’s choice, and now it’s hard to see a way out. Stern warned the players there would be “enormous consequences” for failing to come out of this weekend’s bargaining sessions with the framework of a deal. The suggestion he would cancel the entire season now is ridiculous. That wasn’t his message on Wednesday. It was this, one team president said: “Once they start canceling regular-season games, all bets are off. The deal the players accepted in '99 was worse than what was offered before games had been lost.”
Yes, the players need to blink on Friday for the Emperor, blink and bow, because he’s decided this is the time to make a deal with them. A lot of these owners don’t love Stern anymore, but they know he’s a closer, know he’s cutthroat and know he can deliver their billions of dollars over the next decade. Yes, Stern knows where the bodies are buried, and he’s telling the players again: Cut the deal, cut your losses, or you’ll get whacked, too.
“We’ve already given back too much,” one NBA team player representative texted on Wednesday. Only, the players will have to give back more, and more, and more. What’s the alternative now? As long as the agents don’t get between the commissioner and union executive director, the owners and players are coming to try and cut a deal this weekend, coming to try and salvage the basketball season.
The owners have already won this fight, and it’s just a matter of how greedy they want to get. It’s Stern’s job, his moral duty, to sit the hard-line owners and empty the bench so late in a blowout. This lockout was always ending when the owners were done running up the score, and now it’s on David Stern to be the closer.
“There are two victory speeches being written up now,” one Western Conference executive said. “Stern just needs to give Hunter his.”
The message is unmistakable from the commissioner: Blink now, Billy Hunter. Keep coming with the givebacks, and I’ll still get you out of this with your arms raised in the air, with something to sell. Blink now, Stern is saying. Blink again and again. Once more, Stern’s come to bury the bodies.
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