Players missed shot in lockout game, while Stern scores at will

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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Newly appointed David Boies (left) joins attorney Jeffrey Kessler in the NBPA's fight. (Getty Images)  
Newly appointed David Boies (left) joins attorney Jeffrey Kessler in the NBPA's fight. (Getty Images)  

Because Comrade Berger has had the NBA lockout covered about as well as anyone, we will not bore you with our turgid long-distance analysis of Monday's developments.

The owners are to blame.

Sorry. Couldn't help it.

But one development that hasn't really gotten enough play is the phlegm-chunking contest between David Stern and NBPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler -- two guys who, in the immortal words of Keith Jackson, jusssst dooooon't likeeachotherverymuch.

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It is clear Stern dislikes Kessler, because he keeps bringing him up as the evil Svengali behind the dim but earnest Billy Hunter and the misguided but essentially noble Derek Fisher. At least this is the unmistakable impression Stern, a long-standing master of media guiding/manipulating, is leaving with the audience.

But the players and Hunter have failed miserably at personalizing the owners in similar fashion, and since in the Internet heroes-vs.-villains era in which we live, demonizing your enemy by slapping a face on him is how the game is played, the owners have won that part of the debate.

And won it handily, I might add.

What Hunter and Fisher should have done, and done early on, was not just decertify, but to publicly pick out the targets that best showed what they were up against, and pounded them as though they were piñatas filled with mustard gas.

And no, not Stern. Stern is an employee, and a spokesman, and the best the union could have done there was point out that Stern's mouth was moving but the hands in his back belonged to others.

Others like leading hardliner Peter Holt of San Antonio. Or the more circumspect but equally inflexible Paul Allen of Portland. Allen, being a billionaire, would have been an easier sell to the public for the players' position of "they already have the money and they're just trying to screw us out of our fair share."

And then there was the best target of all, someone who wasn't really a player in the negotiations as far as we know but still an easy mark for caricature.

Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Sterling has long been the first name that comes to mind when the list of least effective owners is drawn. His history as an owner is poor at best, and his record as a real-estate man is even more unsettling, with all manner of unsavory charges made against him and his business practices over the years.

The union, if it had been run by political types, would have hoisted Sterling and Allen and Holt and Sterling again as the face of ownership. It should have said to those who took management's side, "These are your heroes," and hammered it home day after day, in interview after interview, until the caricature stuck.

The advantage? Next to any of them, Kessler is a pretty small fry, and Stern to trade shot for shot would have had to start picking at players, or belt up. And since the players are the product, Stern would have had to slag the product people want to see in defense of the men whom people could care less about.

In the alternative, he would have had to drone on remorselessly about BRI and system and other buzzwords that made most people become hockey fans for at least the length of the interview.

Why the union chose not to do so is one of the many sidebars that can be discussed when the sides finally agree to a deal sometime next summer, when everyone has punched themselves silly and can't even remember Holt or Fisher or Allen or Kessler or BRI anymore.

But it was a tactical error by a union whose tactical errors have been legion throughout this battle. They have managed to give back the equivalent of all the money the owners say they have lost and still look like the greedy ones. They have managed to look rudderless and confused and desperate when in fact theirs is the more defensible cause.

I mean, who has ever gone to a game to say, "I can't wait to see Clay Bennett sit in the front row and eat gourmet popcorn?"

That would have been something else the union might have brought up at some point -- a simple, declarative sentence like, "If you follow basketball to watch rich folks, follow the owners, but if you follow basketball to watch basketball ... well, we're basketball."

Instead, they let Stern go after Kessler as though he were important to casual fans rather than the yappy, bitey dog in the room that can't be quieted even with treats, hunks of meat or animal tranquilizers fired from a starter's pistol. People didn't care.

But they would have cared about owners with billions who couldn't run their fifth most important business the way they run their others. Maybe next time whoever runs the union might figure that out -- and maybe we'll have more fun treating everyone like the cartoon characters they actually are.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com

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