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Behind the Pipes: Into the Arms of the NHL

The NBA's labor woes have pushed the Sports Guy to buy L.A. Kings season tickets

During the NBA’s latest “crucial” labor meeting in New York City yesterday, I was attending the home opener for the Los Angeles Kings 3,000 miles away. How were these two events related? Well, I bought season tickets for the Clippers in 2003, kept them for the past eight years … and added Kings season tickets a few weeks ago. They are now in direct competition for my Amex card. Next June, I will be eliminating one of them in the dramatic season finale of Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Bought Anyway. The Kings have either seven, eight or nine months to win me over. And right now, their odds are better than I thought.

Let’s leave the idiocy of the lockout aside for a second. I realized something during last night’s Kings-Blues game: I have never not enjoyed myself at an NHL game. I mean, what’s not to love? It’s a sport with the best in-game format (long period, long break, long period, long break, long period, go home), best regular-season in-game wrinkle (the shootout), best secretly awesome moment (any fight), highest percentage of “most likable players” (hands down), and highest percentage of “true fans in attendance” of the four major sports (indisputable). They fixed many of the sport’s problems, made it better, and now we’re here.

I bought tickets because I like hockey, but also, because I want to learn more about the sport. I want to hang out with some Kings and see if the “hockey players are the best dudes in professional sports” theory is actually true. I want to find out how much better the “hockey fan in-game experience” is than the other sports. I want to send Grantland staffers to games and make them write about what they witnessed. (Hence, our “Behind the Pipes” series; our seats are only a couple of rows behind one of the nets.) I want to find out answers to things like “How do you become an L.A. Kings ice girl?”, “How did Rocco’s Old-School Tattoo Balm decide to sponsor the L.A. Kings ice girls?” and even, “How can we get Rocco’s Old-School Tattoo Balm as a Grantland sponsor?” We even picked the perfect Kings season — it’s their best chance to win the Stanley Cup since Wayne Gretzky’s heyday.

Of course, I never would have bought Kings tickets without a lockout. And that’s the part these NBA numbskulls are missing. By disappearing, you’re not just canceling a few weeks or a few months. You’re crippling yourself competitively. You’re leaving the door open for other people to fill your shoes. In Showtime’s excellent new drama Homeland, Brody’s dutiful wife started sleeping with his Marine buddy, Mike, because she thought Brody had been murdered in the Middle East. Nope. He had been surviving behind enemy lines for eight solid years before finally escaping. It wasn’t Brody’s fault that Mrs. Brody moved on, obviously, and you couldn’t really blame Mrs. Brody, either. But that’s what people do. You miss something, you grieve for it, and then you move on. It’s human nature.

The NBA owners and players made countless mistakes during these past few months, but over everything else, one stands out: They assumed fans would stick by them through thick and thin. They were wrong. Fans do what’s best for themselves. It was funny to read about the length of yesterday’s NBA meeting — a whopping 16 hours with a federal mediator, double the duration of every other unproductive powwow — if only because they waited until October 18 to show that much urgency. October 18??? If you were on the verge of obliterating the momentum of one of your five best seasons ever, wouldn’t you spend your summer chained to a radiator in a conference room to prevent that from happening? Wouldn’t you say to each other, “We can’t do this, we’re going to drive a good chunk of our fans away?”

That desperate “we can’t leave this room without an answer” moment didn’t happen in February or March or April or May or June or July or August or September … I mean, what the #$&@ were these people doing this whole time? I will never feel the same about David Stern and Billy Hunter, both of whom irrevocably tarnished their legacies these past few months. Their lack of imagination and urgency was absolutely perplexing. Talk to any NBA employee, player or agent off the record and they all say the same thing in one shape or another: Both of these guys are old, they’re stubborn, and they’re terrified to think outside the box. What’s funny is that, once upon a time, Stern lived outside the box. No longer.

True story: On Monday, someone from one of the two sides called me to discuss my admittedly hostile Friday column (and my opinions on the lockout in general). We talked for about 15 minutes about a particular point of contention, came to a middle ground on it, realized we both wanted the same thing — an entirely new NBA system — then spent the next 20 minutes wondering why this mutual epiphany hadn’t happened for the two sides that caused this lockout.

“Lemme ask you something,” I said. “We’re both rational people, right? Let’s say I was running the NBA side and you were running the players’ side. At some point before we canceled games, wouldn’t I have called you and asked to meet one-on-one?”

“Absolutely,” the other person said.

“And wouldn’t I have looked you in the eye and said, ‘Look, you’re stuck on your four things, I’m stuck on my four things, but we can both agree that we need to blow up the current system and create something more logical — at some point — that addresses every big-picture problem our league has. So why don’t we just split our differences and make a two-year bridge deal, then vow to spend the next two years creating something new for the long haul? For these next two years, you want 53 percent BRI, I want 47 percent BRI … we’ll call it 50/50. You want four-year max deals, I want three-year max deals … you get that one, we’ll go with four. You want sign-and-trades, I want no sign-and-trades … I get that one, no sign-and-trades. You want a five-year, $30 million max for the midlevel exception, I want a two-year, $3 million max for the midlevel … we’ll cap it at four-years, $16 million. I want luxury tax teams to pay four times every dollar over $70 million, you want it to be two times … we’ll cap it at 2.5 times for every dollar. We’ll agree not to contract or merge any team for two years. And that’s it.’ Wouldn’t we have bent on that stuff if we both knew we could make a deal?”

“Yes,” the other person said. “That’s how negotiations usually work.”

“So why didn’t it work that way here?”

Deep breath. And then …

“Because David and Billy are running it.”

And that’s the real problem here. You know how in hockey when two guys screw up the faceoff — either they keep jumping the gun, or they keep hitting each other’s sticks — and the official finally gets pissed off and kicks them out of the faceoff? That should have happened with this lockout weeks ago. Stern and Hunter wouldn’t even allow the puck to drop. (We’ll see if the federal mediator kicks them out of the faceoff or not.) As I wrote on Friday, it’s one of those rare situations in which everyone shares blame. Repeat: Everyone.

The players need to realize that professional basketball’s economic model is shifting to a different place — a less favorable place, especially as far as attendance is concerned1 — and that these owners aren’t being dishonest, just scared. The owners need to realize that, instead of overreacting by pillaging the players, they should be working with them while also creating a smarter business model. And the agents need to realize that they’re in no-man’s-land right now — by undermining Hunter and Stern with their constant leaks, and by not having the balls to just come out and publicly say, “WE NEED BETTER LEADERSHIP HERE!!!!!!” they’re making matters worse.

Look, you know where I stand. I think the NBA should look more like Hollywood’s movie structure. I think middle-class guys should make half of what they make now, and stars should make even more. I don’t think any contract should last more than four years. I think we need a better rewards system in place, so that players who outperform their deals (like Derrick Rose winning the MVP while on a rookie contract) and stars who make three straight first-team All-NBA teams (like Dwight Howard) get rewarded in some way. I think the season should be shorter (75 games), and I think we need an April play-in tournament for the 8-seeds in both conferences just because it would be fun. I think we should contract/merge several franchises until we settle at 27 teams; I think Seattle should have a team; I think Chicago should have two teams. I don’t think that the L.A., Chicago and New York teams should pay to keep struggling basketball teams afloat in Charlotte, Indiana, Sacramento, Milwaukee, Minnesota and New Orleans. I think teams should be able to pay their own stars more money than anyone else, and that it’s extremely easy to build in competitive advantages so they can do that.

We need to create a league in which Orlando can offer Dwight Howard $25 million to $30 million more than anyone else (if he wants to leave that extra money on the table to play for a new team, so be it). We need to create a league in which Jose Juan Barea can’t make more than $16 million for four years, and only because that’s what a valuable third guard who doesn’t sell a single ticket should make. We need to give owners better checks and balances (because 80 percent of them have proven they’re too incompetent to handle a relatively free market), and we need to convince players that it’s not always a good thing to grab as much money as you can possibly get (because nothing turns off fans quite like overpaid and underachieving athletes). We need better ideas. We need to keep thinking outside the box. We need to stop looking so freaking old and stubborn and intractable and painfully self-unaware.

Forget about solving this particular lockout. Where is this league going? What does it want to accomplish? Who will be shaping that transition into the “Internet/HD/65-Inch TV/iPad/secondary market/multitasking/Facebook/Twitter/it’s-fun-and-cheaper-to-stay-home” decade that, by the way, started three years ago? Not to bring my employer into this mess, but Disney’s Bob Iger just announced that he’s stepping down in 2016, giving the company plenty of time to determine a succession plan. Why won’t Stern say when he’s leaving? What’s his succession plan? Is Adam Silver taking over? And if he is, why isn’t he being more empowered right now? From the players’ side, who takes over when Billy Hunter retired five years ago? I mean, five years from now? Who will be shaping the league????

Nobody knows these answers, and if there’s anything scarier about this whole fiasco, I haven’t found it. It’s a league that pretends to be “reinventing” itself when, really, it hasn’t done any real innovation other than how it’s embraced the digital world and its business relationships in Europe and China. You know how you create real change? You seek opinions from outside parties. You have brainstorming meetings with non-basketball thinkers who might have one or two ideas that make sense. You don’t hide behind words like “globalization” and “digital” as false evidence that you’re big thinkers. You don’t embarrass yourself by pooh-poohing contraction and telling people, “Please, David has never lost a team on his watch” while also threatening to cancel an entire season. You don’t bitch about teams needing new “state-of-the-art” arenas without spending the requisite amount of time helping franchises figure out what “state of the art” will mean in 2015.

Where’s the big-picture leadership here? What’s the right number of franchises? Where should those franchises play? What’s worse, losing three franchises or losing an entire season of basketball? What’s really important here? I don’t trust the players’ side to make the right choices, because they are saddled with limited intellectual capital. (Sorry, it’s true.) The owners’ side can’t say the same; they should be ashamed. Same for the agents. And collectively, they should all be mortified that a 16-hour negotiating session, this late in the game, was cause for any celebration or optimism. In my mind, it was more of a cry for help.

Meanwhile, the World Series starts tonight in St. Louis. Pro football and college football are in full swing. We’re less than two weeks away from November sweeps. The holidays are looming. If the NBA owners and players think fans will sit around moping without basketball, they’re sorely mistaken. Only the NFL has the luxury of saying, “If we disappeared, our fans would freak out until we came back.” Sorry, NBA, we can always find other things to do in November and December. And eventually, every month after that. Fans adapt. Habits change. People like me say, “Screw it, I’ll give hockey a real chance.” Suddenly, you’re not looking at the same landscape anymore. That’s the danger of what the NBA inflected inflicted on itself, that’s what made these past few months so indefensible, and that’s why hearing on SportsCenter about last night’s “marathon” negotiating session made me want to wave both middle fingers at my TV.

If there’s an irony here, it’s that Gary Bettman — Gary Bettman!!! — has a chance to take advantage of David Stern’s mistakes. It’s like remaking The Godfather: Part II and having Fredo turn the tables on Michael. Just look at what’s happening to a team like the Kings right now. Everything broke perfectly. The Lakers and Clippers disappeared. Poof! They’re gone. The USC and UCLA football teams are struggling. The McCourts turned the Dodgers into Clippers 2.0. Who’s left? Remember, Los Angeles has no memory; it’s a place where you’re only as good as your last hit, where people latch onto winners and coldly dismiss losers both in sports and show business. For years and years, it loved the Lakers and college football, then baseball, then college basketball, then hockey, then the Clippers. In that order.

Right now? The door has swung wide-open for the Kings. As the clock counted down their 5-0 victory last night, I looked around and noticed that, incredibly, just about every fan had stuck around for the final minute. They chanted “LET’S GO KINGS! LET’S GO KINGS!” until the final horn, then skipped out of Staples Center happily, hoping this would finally be their year. And it might.

Me? I drove home thinking, Maybe I’m not gonna miss basketball as much as I thought. Life moves on. It always does.

Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.

Previously from Bill Simmons:

Avoiding the Lockout and the Red Sox
We Need a Renegade Basketball League
A Running Diary of Game 162
Welcome to Amnesty 2.0 in the NBA
NFL Preview: It’s All About Continuity
Summer of Mailbag V: Passing the Buck
Summer of Mailbag IV: Dawn of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag III: Attack of the Mailbag!
The Glorious Return of the Mailbag
Summer of Mailbag: The Revenge

To submit questions for next week’s mailbag, click here; to comment on this story through Facebook, click here.

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, NBA, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, People, Simmons, Sports

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

Archive @ BillSimmons