|NBPA president Derek Fisher will be joined again Tuesday by a contingent of star players. (AP)|
NEW YORK -- One by one they have traveled to the city, the biggest market in basketball, needing to see and hear for themselves what the owners were trying to sell.
Pay cuts, rollbacks, permanent reductions in future earnings? Shorter contracts, fewer guarantees, a massive reduction in the players' share of the NBA's revenues? Really? Now? After another year of record revenues? In the midst of an upswing in popularity not seen since the Michael Jordan era?
And one by one -- a few stars here, a handful there -- they saw for themselves. Yes, it was that bad. Yes, it was as bad a deal as Derek Fisher told them it was.
|More on NBA lockout|
So on Tuesday we arrive at another mile marker in these talks, with the two sides still miles apart. These negotiations happen organically; there's no way to manufacture magic at the 11th hour, especially when it isn't the 11th hour yet. Not a single paycheck or overpriced concession sale or luxury suite cocktail has been lost. Not a single consequence has been felt.
That is why, in considering whether to write this thousand words "setting the table" for tomorrow, I contemplated simply publishing a picture instead -- a picture being worth a thousand words.
A picture of a fiery inferno would just about do it.
Kaboom. Tuesday could be the day when the struggle for economic survival in basketball blows sky high.
I have thought for some time that calmer heads would prevail, and that the deal that is so obvious for me to see would be agreed to with no financial casualties -- with no real games lost. If I can see the deal -- a 52-48 split of revenues in favor of the players, modest but meaningful system changes that would rein in out-of-control spending and raises in the future, and massive revenue sharing enhancements to help low-revenue teams compete -- then surely David Stern, Adam Silver, Billy Hunter and Fisher can see it.
Ah, but while those will be the people negotiating the deal, they will not be the people approving it or rejecting it. Those would be the owners and the players, who are advised and influenced by their agents. And here is what we know about all of them:
• The players, who will be represented in full force again Tuesday when the two sides meet in Manhattan with an on-time start to the regular season at stake, tend to get emotional when confronted with the fact that people are endeavoring to take large sums of their money.
• The agents mean well, and for the most part are trying to protect their clients. But they nonetheless injected themselves into the process again Monday when it was revealed that seven of the most powerful in their ranks made a direct, written appeal to players that doesn't exactly work in concert with the union's current predicament.
• The owners? The very people being counted on to move off their bold bargaining position and secure a fair and reasonable deal with the players? These are the same people who gave Rashard Lewis $118 million and solved that problem by trading him for a washed-up Gilbert Arenas -- with a worse, even longer contract. The same people who gave Drew Gooden $32 million and Darko Milicic $20 million. The same people who hired and refused to fire Isiah Thomas, who continue to employ David Kahn, who change general managers like socks in Portland and who fire off rants in comic sans in Cleveland. Not the sharpest implements on the surgical tray, and in any event, not people whose actions can be predicted with any certainty.
"If anybody's telling you they know how this is going to end," a respected team executive told me Monday, "they're lying to your face."
And so with the players at the bargaining table again Tuesday, with agents threatening decertification, and with it, the assurance of a gaping hole in the season, and with owners enjoying some crudites with their coup d'etat at another swanky Manhattan hotel, we wait for the next shoe to drop. At the risk of putting my foot in my mouth, I am less convinced than ever the shoe will fit -- that the fair deal sitting right there on the table will get as much attention as the lunch spread.
"At the end of the day, if someone is not going to negotiate with you and you can't make a deal with them, then you have to look at what your alternatives are," one prominent agent said Monday. "We've been negotiating with these guys since July and they've done nothing. So at some point, you've got to take your chances somewhere else."
That venue would be federal court in an antitrust action if the seven agents who wrote to their clients over the weekend prove to be right in their assessment that the owners' bargaining position and their actual position are one in the same. If that's the case, I will get a break from the hotel stakeouts and you will get a reprieve from my lockout tweets. We'll pick it up again sometime in November.
"It's like Saving Private Ryan," the team executive said. "It's time to blow up the bridge, and here's the reverse button."
Which way does it go?
There is a fairly painless and reasonable way for the owners to get the vast majority of their stated economic woes addressed without setting fire to $4 billion in revenues and inflicting immeasurable damage to the NBA's future. But if pain is what they want, pain is what they can get. As commissioner David Stern said Monday, "If it's a short meeting, then that's bad."
"Each side understands what's at stake and where potentially there is movement in order to try to get a deal done," said Silver, the deputy commissioner. "I mean, we can only say we're running out of time so many times."
No, the calendar is not their friend, so much so that even if they find common ground -- even if they agree to a deal -- there is no guarantee it will pass the constituent test. The players and their emotions and egos will be there Tuesday, the agent rebellion will be proceeding in the background, and the owners -- who hold the keys to a deal if they choose to dig them out of their man purses -- will be there with a decision to make. Blow up the bridge, or retreat.
I can't tell you I know what's going to happen, only that you should wear your hardhats.