- Hagen: Your father wouldn’t want to hear this, Sonny. This is business not personal.
Sonny: They shoot my father and it’s business, my ass!
Hagen: Even shooting your father was business not personal, Sonny!
Sonny: Well then, business is going to have to suffer.
That’s one of the most famous scenes from one of the most famous movies ever made. You know how things end for Sonny Corleone — he ignores his consigliere, makes it personal and ends up gorging on a bowl of bullets parmigiana. His brother, Michael, assumes command and remains all-business for his first few years, slowly losing perspective and becoming more and more paranoid. He stops trusting his inner circle, grows apart from his family and murders his bumbling brother. Killing Fredo is strictly business for Michael, a warning that nobody should ever cross him. He can’t see anything beyond making money and keeping power. He’s dead inside. No different than Sonny, really.
What does this have to do with the NBA lockout? The owners wanted to blow up their current model; the players gave them gas and matches. But why? I think the answer lies in that Godfather scene. The owners treated these negotiations as a natural extension of their business, only caring about their bottom line and nothing else. The players took the proceedings much more personally. After things fell apart on Monday — when the NBPA rejected David Stern’s “take it or leave it” ultimatum and decided to decertify, a confusing move (because of the timing) that almost certainly wrecked the 2011-12 season — agent Aaron Goodwin made a telling comment to the Washington Post‘s Mike Wise.
“For years owners have treated players as if they are just their property,” Goodwin said, “fining them over how they dress, act, everything. This is the first time the players have the opportunity to say no.”
Whoa. For months and months, bubbling beneath the surface of the posturing and rhetoric, buried under anonymous leaks, veiled threats and everything else that makes any professional sports lockout or strike so insufferable, a dynamic had been swelling that was entirely, 100 percent personal. Let’s look at Goodwin’s take a second time.
For years owners have treated players as if they are just their property
That’s a recurring theme of this lockout, something Bryant Gumbel broached on Real Sports when he compared the NBA owners to plantation owners, then festered when nobody on the players’ side distanced themselves from Gumbel’s words (if anything, you could almost feel them silently nodding). A few days later, Wise’s column “Negotiations could be hijacked by racial perceptions” publicly nailed many of the points that NBPA insiders had been whispering privately for weeks. Why isn’t anyone pointing out that Peter Holt is one of Rick Perry’s biggest donors? Why isn’t anyone remembering that Donald Sterling battled those racial discrimination housing lawsuits, or that Dan Gilbert skewered LeBron James after The Decision and made him seem like, as Jesse Jackson said later, “a runaway slave?” Why hasn’t anyone noticed that 28 of these 29 owners are white, or that everyone in David Stern’s inner circle is white except for Stu Jackson? Race overshadowed these negotiations more than anyone wanted to admit. Gumbel recklessly ripped that scab open. The NBPA’s lead negotiator, Jeffrey Kessler, reopened it last week by stupidly saying, “Instead of treating the players like partners, they’re treating them like plantation workers.”1 Goodwin (an African-American) revisited the theme a little more diplomatically on Monday, but still calling the players “property” is pretty telling.2
This was such an idiotic statement by Kessler, and so counterproductive, that Hunter and his cronies quickly distanced themselves from it AND made Kessler apologize. Somehow, he’s still in charge. Go figure.
Here’s where it gets tough for me. I am white. Jackson’s “runaway slave” remark never sat well with me for the simple reason that — in my mind — slavery should never be brought up with professional sports (no matter the topic). My friend Michael Wilbon disagreed. He thought Gilbert’s remarks failed the racism “smell test” and mentioned that, independently of Jackson, he read Gilbert’s rant and wondered, “Wow, did one of (Gilbert’s) cotton-pickers get away?” Wilbon is one of the smartest, most rational people I know, someone who succeeded by positioning himself as an entertaining writer and TV personality who happens to be black. He never makes race an issue without a reason. Wilbon was bothered by something in Gilbert’s letter that I couldn’t see. His life experiences were different than mine.
Is this what happens when 28 wealthy white guys (plus Michael Jordan, who emerged to everyone’s surprise as a leader of the “let’s screw the players over as much as we possibly can” side) keep trying to impose their will on a collection of not-nearly-as-wealthy-and-mostly black guys? This was one of Stern’s biggest mistakes — believing the league had squashed their race issues decades ago, that his record was impeccable on this front, that he could negotiate one last labor deal without worrying about things like, “The players won’t care that nearly everyone on my side for this meeting is white, right?” Stern would disagree — vehemently — with Goodwin’s assertion that owners treated players like “property.” But Goodwin isn’t some low-level flunkie. He has represented superstars like Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce, LeBron James and Dwight Howard over the years. He represents Kevin Durant right now. He has a better feel for these guys than Stern does. And if he truly believes the players feel like “property,” that’s pretty frightening.
Let’s look at the second part of Goodwin’s quote
For years owners have treated players as if they are just their property — fining them over how they dress, act, everything.
That’s not an outlandish claim. For the past twelve years (since our last labor shutdown), Stern capped contracts and rookie deals so players didn’t get paid too much (or too much right away). He instituted a mandatory dress code so injured players looked more professional (translation: less “urban”). He cracked down on taunting during games, physical play, leaving the bench during altercations and anything else that might lead to another Artest Melee or Kermit/Rudy scenario. He pushed players to participate in “NBA Cares,” fined them for not showing up on time to All-Star Weekend, fined them for avoiding the press during the playoffs and basically treated them like an overbearing high school principal. And, of course, he made every decision in his typically smug, sarcastic, endearing-or-bullying-depending-on-how-you-feel-about-him manner.3
For the record, I find it endearing. Then again, I’ve never been on the opposite side of a bargaining table with him.
He’s clearly wearing out the players and not in a good way. During one of Stern’s typically biting lectures in a crucial labor meeting two months ago, Dwyane Wade snapped and yelled at him, “Don’t you point your finger at me!” That was personal, not business. That was Wade telling Stern, “Fuck you, you’re not my dad. We’re tired of your condescending bullshit. It’s not happening anymore.” Same with Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce staging their infamous (and totally ill-conceived), “We’re not budging from 53 [BRI]” walkout a few weeks later. Even more interesting: Stern and his inner circle were (and are) genuinely dumbfounded by the players’ growing enmity towards them.4
Something that probably didn’t help — unlike in 1999, every twist and turn during this lockout was dissected immediately on Twitter, sports blogs and web sites, and any player could become a character in the negotiations just by tweeting something either inflammatory or defensive. The coverage of this lockout, in general, was incredibly comprehensive and so pointed that I can’t even imagine how casual fans followed it. Even if the players barely (if ever) heard from their player reps, they could certainly educate themselves about the day-to-day proceedings of the lockout if they wanted.
Quick tangent: My father served as the superintendent of schools in Easton, Massachusetts, for nearly twenty years. He retired in the summer of 2009, at the age of 62, for a variety of reasons but mainly this one. He didn’t want to stay too long. When you’re a superintendent, it only takes one renegade school committee member, one unexpected budget cut, one scandal or one tragedy to shift momentum against you. Once it happens, you can’t get it back. Adversaries smell your weakening power the same way zombies smell blood. You start getting undermined or browbeaten into ideas you never wanted to do. By the time you finally resign or get replaced, those final years become part of your legacy, the last thing anyone remembers about you (whether you like it or not). My father never wanted that to happen. He left one year too early instead of one year too late. He has no regrets.
And as an NBA die-hard and 38-year season ticket holder for the Celtics, he watches what’s happening with David Stern right now and has one reaction: “He stayed too long. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen to me.”
I don’t blame Stern — sometimes you’re the last to know. I think that he thought his track record was impeccable. He can’t see how his players see him in 2011 — as the little/old/sarcastic/white/out-of-touch dictator who patronizes them, orders them around, genuinely feels like THEY should listen to HIM, and by the way, works for the owners (and not them). And it’s not like fans are delighted with him, either. He stopped thinking outside the box years ago.5 It’s funny that the league obsesses over its big market/small market issue, revenue sharing and international growth and keeps trotting out the same laborious 82-game regular season with the same jacked-up prices and the same annoying issues (like tanking for draft picks, or exhausted teams playing their fourth road game in five nights). You know what was really telling these past few weeks? We were coming off of one of the top-five NBA seasons ever, now it’s November, the league isn’t playing and nobody really cared. Imagine the outrage if pro football disappeared for an entire month. Where’s the clamoring for regular season pro basketball?
I’d list some examples but I’ve written about this 275 times.
If anything, it’s swung the other way. Many season ticket holders don’t care if they miss these first six weeks of games, feeling their tickets are overpriced, anyway. Casual fans only care during the playoffs; for them, it was always a nine-week sport and that’s it.6 Only the junkies are pissed off. And even then, you don’t REALLY feel the NBA’s loss until after the holidays, when college football is gone and the NFL playoffs are winding down. No wonder the league claims to be losing money even after a godsend of a two-year stretch (pre-Decision and post-Decision) in the midst of a historic talent boon. When you remember it happened on Stern’s watch, then factor in his disconnect with the players, it’s sure starting to seem like one of the greatest sports commissioners ever overstayed his welcome.
That apathy vindicated the owners’ position to some degree: In case you were wondering, nobody really gives a crap that we’re not playing right now. By blowing up the NBA and trying to create a more logical model, we weren’t exactly breaking up the ’27 Yankees here.
Which brings us to the last part of Goodwin’s quote
This is the first time the players have the opportunity to say no.
That’s a pretty bold statement. And by the way I don’t disagree. When can you remember NBA players truly standing up to Stern before these last few months? See their quotes or tweets dating back to the summer and the same themes keep popping up. Why should we trust the owners’ numbers? We already gave back, what are they giving up? Why are we the ones making all the concessions? How is this a partnership when one side is telling the other side what to do? Why do they claim so many franchises are in trouble when people are still buying them? Who was putting a gun to the owners’ heads when they were giving out all those contracts that they knew were dumb?
Some arguments make sense; others are too idealistic. But there is definitely an overriding theme. We don’t trust them, we’re tired of kowtowing to them, we’re standing up for ourselves. The players would rather implode a season than accept an unfavorable deal — not as a business move, but for their own sanity, because they’re over-competitive, proud people who no longer want to be told what to do. They convinced themselves (perhaps foolishly) that there’s a greater good here, that their collective dignity was worth sacrificing a paid season of their preciously short playing careers. They believe they conceded enough (a 10 percent drop of their revenue share, basically), they’re worried about protecting future generations of players (or so they claim), and deep down, it pisses them off that the Old Haughty White Guy Who Bossed Us Around For Years basically told them last week, “Here’s our offer, here’s our deadline for you to take that offer, and if you don’t like it, I am going to ram that offer up your asses and you won’t play this year.”
Really, they’re just rebelling. And over everything else, that’s why the 2011-12 season is about to get canceled.
Of course, these things don’t just blow up by themselves. Everything described above was the “gas.” We still needed matches, and we still needed people lighting those matches and tossing them towards the gas leak. Here were the offending parties in no particular order.
1. Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher
Imagine riding in a car with someone who doesn’t care if he dies. He’s driving 100 miles an hour on the highway and cackling like a maniac. You’re asking him to slow down. He asks, “What’s it worth to you?” You stammer. He says, “Unless you give me everything in your wallet right now, I’m driving into that highway divider up there.” You have to make a decision: Do you pay him, or do you think he’s bluffing?
Well, you pay him. Quickly. You don’t want to find out if he values his life less than you value yours.
Guess who had the leverage that whole time? That’s right the suicidal maniac driving the car. And really, that’s how the latest NBA lockout played out. We have known for nearly three years that the NBA owners (a) wanted to change the financial structure of their business, and (b) didn’t care how they did it, just that it happened. If they lost 30 games of the 2011-12 season to get what they wanted, fine. If they lost the season, fine. If they lost three seasons, fine. They didn’t care. Just don’t ask them a question like, “If you’re so unhappy owning your NBA franchise, why don’t you just sell it?” See, heading into the summer of 2011, your average NBA franchise was more valuable for the investment itself than for the revenue it yielded. That’s pretty liberating — if you don’t care that your business stops, how can anyone possibly negotiate with you? You’re basically driving them towards that highway divider and asking for their wallet.
You could see the owners’ devious plan percolating as far back as All-Star Weekend in 2009, when I wrote my “No Benjamins Association” column7 and predicted doom. You know who else could see it coming? Billy Hunter! You know, the guy who admitted last week to knowing this day was coming for two or three years. That begs the question, “Why didn’t you start the decertification process on July 1 instead of November 14, Billy?” It’s like losing your house to an earthquake and saying, “I knew we were going to have another earthquake, I’ve been saying this for years,” only never buying earthquake insurance. Excuse me? Maybe Hunter doesn’t realize it yet, but he’s become a permanent punchline for playing the decertification card so late (and for how he handled the past six months in general). I wouldn’t let Billy Hunter negotiate an eBay bid for me at this point.
One prediction from that column: “The owners will happily lock out players as soon as the current CBA expires, then play the same devious waiting game from the summer of 1998 will the league survive a yearlong disappearance? What about two years? We’re less than 29 months from starting to find out. If you think it’s a good idea to disappear for even six months in shaky economic times, ask any Writers Guild member how that turns out. These wealthy or used-to-be-wealthy owners don’t want to keep losing money just to feed their ego by continuing to own a basketball team. They will make other arrangements, the same way they would arrange to sell their favorite yacht because they didn’t feel like splurging on gasoline anymore. These guys don’t want to fix the system; they want to reinvent it.”
As a friend who works in professional sports (not the NBA) pointed out by email this week, “When one party has all of the leverage (like the NFL lockout once the Court of Appeals ruled the lockout could continue, or the NBA lockout until now), it does not necessarily mean the other party has to hit its head against the wall. What is wrong with figuring out, well in advance, that you have a weak position and cutting the best deal you can? This notion that a good negotiation lasts right up until a deadline (or past a deadline) is stupid. A good negotiation is understanding your position and getting a deal done before bad things happen. That is where the NBPA (Kessler, really) screwed this up. Sometimes you just have to understand that the best deal to be made (under any circumstances) CAN be made early. If you get criticized as a Gene Upshaw-type lackey then so be it. By the way, when you are willing to do a deal early you can sometimes get peripheral issues your way because the other party does recognize the value of avoiding a fight and missed games.”
And sure, if the league suddenly started making boatloads of money, that leverage would shift and the players could say, “Everything stops unless we get more.” But those weren’t the stakes this time around. Hunter and Fisher failed to prepare the players, fed their anti-Stern neuroses, never unearthed a decent strategy and misread every conceivable tea leaf. Their goal from Day One should have been, “We have no leverage, we need to get the best deal we can without missing any paychecks.” Even last week, they mistook Stern’s ultimatum as “take it or leave it” when it was really an “S.O.S.” — with his influence eroding, Stern barely had enough owner votes and knew small-market teams (along with Washington and Denver) wouldn’t back any other offer unless it pillaged the players.8 Hunter and Fisher thought he was bluffing. They were wrong. Dead wrong. That offer is gone. And it’s not coming back.
We learned these past few weeks that Stern barely has enough juice to mobilize his owners any more. There’s too much new money in the league and too many owners who weren’t around during Stern’s prime. Goes back to my dad’s whole “stayed too long” thing.
You can’t oversell how disorganized Hunter’s side has been — especially last weekend and on Monday, when they never allowed the players to vote, failed to give them enough information and couldn’t even wrangle every player rep to Monday’s meeting in New York. It took them five solid days to respond to Stern’s offer; instead of countering with four or five system tweaks like Stern expected (he would never admit that publicly because it would belie his whole “take it or leave it” stance, but it’s true), the players simply shredded it and launched the NBA’s “nuclear winter” (Stern’s words, and really, his only inspired moment of the past few months). Anyone who commends the players for standing up for themselves should mention that, during those five days — which doubled as the five most essential days in the recent history of the players association — many players couldn’t even get in touch with their team reps (much less Hunter or Fisher). Those players were standing up for themselves, all right — they were standing up to make sure they had cell phone reception because nobody was emailing them any updates. What a mess. If I wrote a book about the 2011 NBA Lockout, it would either be called Clusterfuck! or CLUSTERFUCK!
2. The Owners
Either they never wanted a season (and lied this whole time), or they badly misread the players’ resolve and their growing contempt for Stern. It’s one or the other. Hmmmmmmm. Let’s lie and pretend they wanted a season. Who “negotiates” like that? Why were they going for Eff You touchdowns like the post-Spygate Patriots? Why weren’t they more magnanimous? Why did they try to win every single issue? Whatever happened to the concept of “I want to win, but I also want to be fair because these are my partners for the next 10 years?”
Players are competitors. They don’t want to be “embarrassed” or “broken.” It’s easy for them to confuse “taking a stand” with “not making the best available deal given the limited leverage you had.” Why didn’t the owners find a few subtle ways to let the players save face? Didn’t they learn anything from how Roger Goodell and his owners handled those few days after their NFL agreement, when they effusively praised the deal for both sides even after working the players like a speed bag? And if Team Stern expected the players to counter, why not say that? Hell, why not say, “We screwed that ‘last offer’ thing up, we’re revising our offer as a sign of good faith in one last attempt to save the season”?
One thing’s for sure: If Stern believed they were that close (and I know for a fact he did), then he totally failed and totally underestimated how the players felt. Not their resolve, just how they felt. Maybe that’s why he seemed visibly stunned afterwards, blaming Hunter and Kessler when the reasons were so much more complex. The players know they have terrible leadership. Their agents have been telling them that for months and months and months. And at this point, they don’t care. Even though Hunter was an unequivocal disaster these past few months — his lack of urgency was stupefying, his lack of a coherent strategy was almost criminal, his summer media strategy couldn’t have been worse, and his inability to keep his 450 players in the loop from day to day was inexplicable — the players kept following him and Fisher if only because the other option (trusting Stern and the owners) was less palatable. How can someone run a sports league for 28 years and lose the trust of his players that completely? And how could he possibly expect to win that trust back?
(The short answer: He won’t. It’s gone.)
3. The Pampering Issue
Your typical NBA owner operates like a sugar daddy of sorts. He coddles his players, flies them on chartered planes, serves them gourmet meals on those planes, puts them up in five-star hotels, builds them state-of-the-art practice facilities, hires them the best possible training staffs, sneaks them extra tickets for every game, enables their entourages, builds ticket campaigns around them, kisses their asses and (in some cases) even allows their friends to hitch rides on team charters. That’s the real reason Dan Gilbert was so pissed off two years ago — after giving LeBron everything he wanted for years and years, LeBron never had the courtesy to call before he picked Miami. Gilbert felt more like a spurned boyfriend than anything (and acted like it).
I thought we had something! What about all those times I let your buddies ride on our team charter! You used me! I’m throwing away everything you ever gave me!
Once Gilbert flipped that switch and went after LeBron so ferociously, the players took it personally just like they took it personally when the owners started playing hardball this summer. (You can only imagine how the players would have reacted had the owners pulled “chartered planes” and “suites in every five-star hotel” out of their last proposal. Then we REALLY would have had a problem.) There’s a general disconnect here that almost feels like a bad marriage. Follow me here
• The owners bitch about the players being greedy, and yet all they’ve done is enable that greed.
• The players claim they’re being disrespected, and yet no group of professional athletes has ever been more spoiled.9
No American professional sports league ever had a higher average salary.
• The owners claim they care about the quality of the game, and yet, every player says the ideal number of regular season games — if your goal is to have healthy, rested players entertaining your fans to their best abilities every night — is somewhere between 70 and 74 games. (The owners, of course, ignore this.)
• The players claim it’s not their fault that owners keep handing out lavishly dumb deals to forgettable players, and yet they ignore that their fans — the people who pay their salaries and keep their league afloat — hate nothing more than seeing overpaid assholes jogging through games, faking injuries, showing up for camp 20 pounds overweight, clogging their team’s salary cap and making it harder to improve their team’s roster. The fact that they don’t realize this reflects on them is kind of alarming. Can you really be that self-absorbed?10
The counterargument to that point (as Stein & Bucher made in our podcast on Tuesday): Come on, you’d want yourself or any other writer to make as much money as they could! I would have rebutted this more effectively if Bucher’s crappy cell phone didn’t make it impossible to interrupt him. Here’s the problem with that argument — a professional sports league only has a certain amount of money to give its players. Why do you want too much of that money going to the wrong players? Why not come up with a better model, something that addresses the issues of rookie contract guys outperforming their deals (like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook) or meal tickets like LeBron and Durant making less money than Vernon Wells or John Lackey? I’m fine with players making as much money as they can — can we just make sure those players are good and deserve the money? God forbid we figured out how to work performance-based incentives (like All-Star or All-NBA appearances, top-5 MVP votes, the Finals MVP or someone who spends a certain number of years with the same team) into the labor negotiations these past few months.
• The owners claim they need a better financial model, and yet, they’re the ones recycling the same incompetent executives — seriously, someone is hiring Ed Stefanski again???? — and handing out cringe-worthy contracts year after year after year after year. I wrote the “Atrocious GM Summit” column in 2006 — four years later, with a lockout looming, we watched more moronically dumb contracts handed out than EVER before. These guys can’t stay out of their own way, and even worse, the players want to keep it that way.
Aren’t they “partners” here? Don’t they care about the league as a whole? Don’t they want fans to like their product? The players want it both ways — please, keep the chartered airplane seats, hotel suites, crab legs and stupid contracts coming, just don’t ask me to care about the quality of my league. In a perfect world, both sides would work together and create the best and most fan-friendly NBA model possible. But the world ain’t perfect.
You know what the real irony is? The owners’ last proposal actually made a ton of sense. Read Howard Beck’s breakdown of what it would have looked like, potentially, and try to find ONE thing that isn’t logical. Contracts should be shorter so fans aren’t getting constantly turned off by that relentlessly overpaid mediocrity. The gap between big market teams and small market teams should be smaller. A team like Cleveland should have a more favorable chance to keep its best player. A star like Carmelo shouldn’t be able to force a trade and get rewarded with a mammoth extension. The mid-level exception should be tempered — it spawned too many dumb contracts and made it harder for teams to improve. What’s wrong with coming up with a smarter model in which the right money goes to the right people? That’s a bad thing?
As my aforementioned pro sports friend says, “In every part of life there are systems that protect people from doing things that will ultimately hurt themselves — its why banks don’t charge $30/month for debit card usage; it’s not like they don’t want to, and it’s not like some people wouldn’t pay for it. Once you have the BRI split then EVERYONE should be working towards a better system. The NFL got to the dollars, got to the cap, then tried to make it so the rookie pool made more sense. This is a system issue that benefitted everyone. It doesn’t make sense for Sam Bradford to make more than Drew Brees, right? The key with any system issue is trust — you tell the NBPA that the money WILL be in the system no matter what — don’t they want it to go to guys like Wade or Dirk or Monta Ellis (early in his career) instead of mediocre veterans like Darko or Cardinal? This is where the agents have too much power — some of the powerful ones benefit from certain system structures even if the overall cash doesn’t change — they just need to be ignored, and the players need to really trust that the system change won’t cost them dollars in the aggregate.”
Which leads us to
4. The Agents
If the players don’t trust the owners or Stern, and they’re losing trust in Hunter and Fisher, who’s left?
You guessed it it’s those shrewd and lovable legal minds who negotiate for players, call them every day, know their kids’ names, won them over years ago, spent the last few months quietly undermining Hunter, know how to butter up media members and curry favor, and currently have their clients lathered into an anti-The-Man frenzy. The agents despised the owners’ latest proposal — they don’t want the middle class compromised in any way, or sign-and-trades, or the luxury tax, because that might curtail player movement (their bread and butter). They would rather lose a season to protect what they have, knowing they have much longer careers and they’ll make those commissions back over time as long as they can prevent the NBA’s model from changing against them too drastically right now.
Make no mistake: The agents are the single smartest group involved in this lockout. They make absurd commissions working over general managers (usually ex-players) who are almost always unequipped to negotiate with them. You know that saying “laughing all the way to the bank”? That’s what the best sports agents do. Trust me, they have done the math. They figured out exactly where this lockout needs to end for them — repeat: for them — and advised the players accordingly. Meanwhile, these players can NEVER get that lost season back from three standpoints: how it affects them financially, how it affects their playing careers, and how it affects their fans (especially the casual ones who hopped on the bandwagon these past two years and will just as quickly hop off). The agents were supposed to be protecting these guys; instead, they protected themselves. Of course
5. Jeffrey Kessler
The agents could never act more selfishly than Kessler, who waited his whole career for the right antitrust suit and finally found his patsy. It’s his chance to become the focal point of an HBO documentary, bring the NBA to its knees and maybe become the Marvin Miller of antitrust lawyers. (It’s a longshot, and we might lose a couple of NBA seasons in the process, but who cares, right?) Those just-as-ruthless NFL owners sniffed him out early, chopped his balls off and eventually shut him out of the final negotiating process, knowing he didn’t totally care about getting a deal done. Now he’s operating in a much bigger vacuum — thanks to a leadership void, Kessler kept amassing power even after his “plantation owners” comment backfired so spectacularly.11
A cynic would say that Kessler deliberately tried to undermine negotiations with that comment in a last-ditch attempt to mess things up so he could get his antitrust suit.
Again, one of the world’s leading experts in antitrust law is mobilizing NBA players towards a potentially historic antitrust suit that could wipe away multiple (repeat: multiple) seasons. You don’t see anything shady there? Giving Kessler a significant say in these proceedings makes about as much sense as putting Kris Jenner in charge of a Parents Shouldn’t Exploit Their Kids support group.
6. The Veteran Superstars
That would be Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce seven of our wealthiest, most-thoughtful and most-accomplished NBA players. Five of them have been missing in action — most disappointingly, Nash, one of the smartest athletes in any sport. Kobe can’t decide whether he wants to cross Fisher and Hunter or not; he’s done everything but call them out, he’s allegedly leaked information to writers, he pushed hard behind the scenes for the 50/50 deal, he obviously wants to play and yet, there’s an invisible line he won’t cross.12 Pierce has gone the other way — he’s been the union’s most vocal “veteran star” voice, and if there’s been a revelation these past few months, it’s that Pierce carries more weight with other players than anyone else.
I thought for sure that Kobe would be our saving grace here. Of everyone, he has the most to lose — a chance at a title, 2,000 more points towardsto Kareem’s scoring record, maybe one last elite year from his knees, and oh yeah $25 million. By the way, I hate this lockout for so many reasons, but the fact that it’s making me root for Kobe ranks right up there.
All right, so let’s look at Pierce for a second. He’s one of my favorites. As a Celtics fan, I stuck with him through thick and thin. I remember when he was nearly stabbed to death, how that incident affected him, how his personal issues nearly led the Celtics to trade him in 2005, how that moment didn’t happen only because Boston’s new owner stuck up for him, how he reinvented himself over the next three years, how he graciously stuck around during a rebuilding process because his GM promised him help, how he thrived during that championship season, how he soaked in that special moment during Game 6 (in the fourth quarter against the Lakers at home, when the crowd was going bonkers and Pierce turned towards the stands, nodded happily and seemed to be saying to himself, “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this”), how he tried so valiantly to win a title these past three years as his body slowly betrayed him. He’s one of the toughest (and most durable) Celtics ever. He could have played with Russell, Cowens, Bird, you name it.
I’m not surprised that Pierce emerged as a behind-the-scenes leader during this lockout. Every Celtics fan knows how he’s wired. Here’s what surprises me: Knowing how competitive he is, knowing how much he cares about one more title, knowing how much he loves playing in Boston, knowing how much he appreciates how Wyc Grousbeck and Danny Ainge stood by him over the years, knowing how he thinks about his career in a big-picture sense, knowing that he’s a pretty rational guy it frightens me that Paul Pierce cares this much about standing up to the owners and potentially losing a season. It makes me think the owner/player relationship (and the Stern/player relationship) is significantly more damaged than we want to believe. I don’t agree with many of the reasons why we arrived there, or with the motives of the people who either conspired to get us there (or pushed us there with their own ineptitude), but we’re there and really, that’s all you can say.
For that reason and all the others, I keep saying “no” whenever anyone asks me if there will be a 2011-12 NBA season. Just know that there’s no side to take — it’s mutually assured destruction in its purest form. That’s difficult to explain to anyone losing their job over these next few months. I work across the street from the Staples Center at L.A. Live, in a complex that houses something like 10 restaurants and three bars within a two-minute walk of Staples. They were expecting three or four NBA games every week from now until next spring. Now on those nights, it’s quiet as hell. A little eerie, even. Bartenders, waiters, bus boys and cooks will start getting axed soon. Same for many Clippers/Lakers employees across the street, and for every other team, and for everyone else who works near an NBA arena, and for every media entity that covers one of the 30 teams it’s a ripple effect that keeps going and going, and it’s happening because this lockout went sooooooooooooo much deeper than just “we’re taking a stand.”
I can’t see the players caving at this point. They’re too entrenched and too rankled. Stern and Hunter are too stubborn to step aside; it’s like they’re trapped in the same never-ending hockey faceoff, only the referee won’t ship them off. Kessler and the agents only care about themselves. Same for the small market owners and even a few of the bigger market ones. If you’re looking for a voice of reason13, a veteran star14 to throw his hands up and say, “Wait a second,15 we’re not really throwing this season away,16 right?”, you’re going to be disappointed.17 That renegade player18 would have emerged by now.
“I’m Kobe Bryant”
“for Kobe Bryant”
For the owners, nothing has changed — it’s strictly business. For the players, something has changed — it’s almost entirely personal. You can’t find a middle ground between those two worlds. You just can’t. Maybe it’s the opposite of how definitively The Godfather: Part II ended — with Michael Corleone sitting outside by himself, lost in thought, alone in every sense, a ruthless businessman with no personal connection to anything — but even so, that deafening silence sounds the same.
Bill Simmons is Grantland’s Editor in Chief, the host of the BS Report podcast, the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball and the co-creator of ESPN’s Peabody-award winning “30 For 30” series. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook
Previously from Bill Simmons:
Welcome to the National Mailbag League
Sports Book Hall of Fame: Ghosts of Manila
The Career Arc: Eddie Murphy
Bill and Jay’s YouTube Adventure
NFL Quarterback Power Rankings
Proactively Mourning the NBA
Behind the Pipes: Into the Arms of the NHL
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