NEW YORK – Within the past year, an NBA owner was marveling over the staying power of David Stern. Stern's support had narrowed, his bully act worn thin, and the owner insisted how his peers would talk so tough about the commissioner when he walked out of the room. And then Stern would come through the door, and it almost always faded away.
“All of a sudden, all these rich, powerful guys are just staring at their shoes,” the owner said.
After all the suggestions – here and elsewhere – that Stern had lost clout with a brash new generation of owners, several management sources still insist: He’s ruled the owners' day in these labor talks, and he’s still positioning all the pawns in this lockout. The NBA has moved to the cusp of canceling regular-season games, to a nuclear basketball winter, and has still refused to seriously engage the players in talks on a new collective bargaining agreement.
This is why some player agents are threatening to decertify the union as soon as this week, throw out executive director Billy Hunter and his lawyers, and file an anti-trust lawsuit in federal court. They’ve wanted to take on Stern forever, and they’re determined to replace Hunter and his lawyers with hard-core labor lawyers and throw some uncertainty into the owners' fight. This could be a wild scene in Manhattan, where defiance out of Stern, out of his owners, promises to inspire all hell to break loose.
Once again, does Stern want to be the commissioner for everyone on Tuesday, and ultimately spare his sport a bloodbath of courtrooms, lawsuits and maybe a lost 2011-12 season? He needs to gather his owners, propose a deal the players can accept, and understand that this is no time to run up the score on the union. The owners have already won big. Stern’s spent most of his professional life as an unapologetic bully, but this time, enough’s enough.
Stern is chasing his own big salary, his own big bonuses, and he knows there’s a deal the players will take that will give his owners a fair chance for profits and competitive balance. He invited this insurrection out of the agents, and now it’s coming. He needs to end it, and spare the NBA a needless bloodbath.
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“We’re not just walking off the cliff with [Hunter],” one prominent agent told Yahoo! Sports on Monday. “We’re ready to take the next step and decertify. We’re not going to let the league set up [Tuesday’s] meeting as a way to trap us into a bad deal.”
Said another powerful agent: “Stern doesn’t want to deal with us; he wants Billy and his lawyers in there. Maybe if Stern's faced with revealing financial records, legal costs and paying possibly billions in damages, maybe he’ll have more incentive to make a deal than sitting across the room from Hunter, eat turkey sandwiches and taking a percentage point at a time away from the players.”
Stern doesn’t want the nuclear option of decertification, but he’s forced the players to pursue it. This has been a rigged process for years, and most agents regret only that they didn’t oust Hunter on July 1, when the owners locked them out. Back then, Hunter could’ve stayed as the front man in talks the way the NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith did in the NFL’s decertification, but not now. Hunter’s done, and the agents can’t wait to unload him. For those who say that this isn’t personal, well, they’re kidding themselves.
The fans don’t care about those politics, nor should they. Without the framework of a deal, these next 24 hours could bring an Armageddon that will set back years of NBA momentum. The players have offered givebacks, and Stern and his owners sneered at them. The agents have wanted Stern on a level playing field for years, and they’re determined to sue that smirk off his face. They don’t care about the PR war, they care about winning. Billions of dollars are a stake, and, truth be told, the agents can spare the players the inevitable bad-guy role that the public invariably thrusts upon them in these labor disputes.
The agents are willing to become the targets, and they’re used to it. Miami’s Dwyane Wade(notes) never deserved the public scorn for his honesty with Yahoo! Sports when he simply stated the obvious: In an uncapped system, there would be owners justifiably willing to pay upwards of $50 million a season for the NBA’s transformational stars. This was no demand, but an honest assessment of the value the elite stars bring to basketball.
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As the labor fight plays out, Stern is slowly seeing the onus leave him, and transfer to his players. This makes his life easier now, but so much harder later when his league’s most important commodity – his star players – take a public-perception beating. The players' job is to fight for themselves and for the little guys in the union, and when they do, they get torched.
After the Wade story was posted, a GM reached out to tell me: “There’s absolutely no doubt that the top NBA stars are the most underpaid in sports. The max salaries created the Heat. The owners have only themselves to blame if they don’t like what happened with the Heat. There’s no way [Heat owner] Micky Arison could afford the $140 million to pay those three in a free market situation – and that’s $140 million annually.”
The Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant(notes) will be in New York for the meeting Tuesday, a source said. Boston’s Paul Pierce(notes) will return, too. They’re the thirtysomething stars who’ve made their money and reached the point where they don’t much care if they take care a public-relations beating for fighting the owners. They have the right to resent owners such as Phoenix’s Robert Sarver, who’ve brought no value to the league, who’ve done nothing to make franchises better.
Sarver has received a lot of blame for his hard-line leanings in these talks, but one ownership voice dismisses his gravity. “I don’t think he has any importance in the room, because he’s always shooting his mouth off,” one high-ranking NBA official with access to the talks said. “I’m not sure anyone’s paying attention to him. Stern is still running things there.”
Two agents told Yahoo! Sports that it doesn’t matter what happens in the talks today, because they refuse to give back anymore to the owners. They will tell their players to reject any union deal that offers more givebacks to the league, and they’ll hope that decertification will push the owners into negotiating for real.
All hell’s going to break loose on Manhattan’s East Side Tuesday, and David Stern has been asking for this agent uprising from the beginning of these labor talks. He’s been asking for the fight of his life, and maybe, the implosion of his sport when this should be a golden time. So, stop the preening, stop the end-zone dance and make those rich guys start to stare at their shoes again. For once, be the commissioner of the NBA, not just the owners. Enough’s enough, bully.
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