NEW YORK -- At one point during the NBA's latest foray into an alternate universe -- and hopefully the last for a while -- David Stern said something about not wanting to get into all the gory details of "how the sausage was made."
Here was the commissioner of the NBA, trying to explain how his direct involvement in a team trading one of the biggest stars in the league was all above board and as pure as the wind-driven snow. On the phone with him was Dell Demps, the general manager of the New Orleans Hornets, who was last seen trading Chris Paul to the Lakers a few days ago.
I'd like to say this was the strangest thing I've seen out of the NBA business in the past five or six months, but in retrospect, I'm not even sure this one makes Letterman's Top 10 list.
So Demps was there to listen to his De facto owner, Stern, extol the virtues of a trade sending Paul from New Orleans to the Clippers -- a deal that Stern said made the Hornets' future in New Orleans "better than it's ever looked before." Let's withhold judgment on that, take a deep breath, and recognize the moment in which we now stand.
The circus, in all its shamefulness, is leaving town. If just for a little while, I think the last link of sausage has been extracted from the grinder.
These were ugly, ugly times for the business of basketball, and for professional sports. And you know what? That's pretty much how the sausage is made, and it's probably safe to say that we're all glad we can avert our eyes now.
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The conflict of interest inherent in Stern and league executives Joel Litvin and Stu Jackson negotiating a trade for one of the game's brightest stars -- deciding he shouldn't be traded to the Lakers but should be sent to their co-tenants at Staples Center -- will not go down as the proudest moment of Stern's tenure as commissioner. And that's saying something. Had it been his best moment, that would've been saying something, too.
"It was not my favorite role, but I did it," Stern said. "... I must confess that it wasn't a lot of fun."
It is never enjoyable to see the underbelly of the beast, to see how things really work and how a multi-billion-dollar business is really run. As the wind whipped down Sixth Avenue, where I waited for my mode of transportation to the boroughs after an afternoon of work in the city, it occurred to me that the NBA and all who work around it and take interest in it have experienced an overdose of post-mortems and blow-by-blows and X-ray films. All of these exposed what typically happens when a lot of money and power are at stake.
From the early days of labor negotiations in the springtime, to the 15-hour sessions in the fall and the public chicanery that went with them, to this powder keg of star power meeting forlorn franchise meeting a commissioner's uncomfortable role as lead negotiator on a trade, enough was enough. In the digital world, with Twitter as the corrupt, bastardized Vin Scully of our lives, we get every detail, every behind-the-scenes tidbit, every unsightly morsel of leftovers when each day is done. The curtain was pulled back on the NBA as a business over the past few months, and what we saw entertained and informed us a little, but mostly horrified us. Sweaty men in rumpled, blood-stained suits stuffing more raw meat into the sausage grinder, making a product that looks and tastes pretty good if we ever get to indulge.
Soon, finally, we get to indulge. The curtain goes back, and the things we don't want to see are hidden from view for a while -- until the next crisis, the next power play.
"I just think the overall approach to things in this business," Lakers guard and union president Derek Fisher said recently, "is getting a little bit difficult to stomach."
With the merciful end to the Paul fiasco and the temporary termination of trade talks involving another star, Dwight Howard, by my estimation we have until mid-February or so before the mechanical bull gets fired up again and we all go for another stomach-churning ride.
"I wouldn't call it a backlash," Stern said. "I would call it a frenzy. And it was understandable. ... It's the new digital world in which we live, and we accept that because when things are good and pleasant, we take advantage of that. So we have to accept what went on here."
What went on here was wrong, plain and simple, but it was also unavoidable once Stern recommended -- and the other 29 owners agreed -- to seize control of the Hornets in December 2010. Former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, connoisseur of conspiracy theories, saw it coming when he opined at the time, "When Chris says he has to be traded, how's that going to go?"
Not so well, Zen Master. Not so well.
Stern acknowledged it all -- the conflict of interest, the appearance of impropriety -- and didn't even forcefully dispute the notion that he's now in the position, as final decision maker on the trade, of having to root for the players New Orleans received to perform well, and thus make it as good a trade as he thought it would be.
"I'm now moving onto the next thing," Stern said. "That's going to be the job of ownership that will likely take over in the first half of 2012. All we were trying to do was, at this frozen moment in time as all trades are judged ... [do] something that we viewed as the best that the Hornets could do. What happens later on, we'll leave it to you and other pundits to assess."
This frozen moment in NBA history -- a clumsy, unexpurgated, careening ride through the reality of sports' true ugliness -- has sapped all our vigor. Even that of Stern. Not even the commissioner -- the "bully," as Deron Williams called him last week -- had the will to fight anymore.
The Paul trade did not solve any problems, didn't present the league in a favorable light at all. Contrary to Stern's syrupy rhetoric, it did nothing to ensure that basketball will thrive, or even live, in New Orleans for any substantial length of time.
What it did was help the Hornets make the best of a bad situation, one that clearly wasn't solved by a collective bargaining agreement that involved a fair amount of exposure for the stunningly complex and at times distasteful aspects of running a professional sports league. It is said in NBA front office circles that you can only sell two things, success and hope, and so the Hornets have chosen what's behind curtain No. 2. They avoided the soap opera of having Paul stuck in New Orleans for another year, and dodged a death knell were he to leave as a free agent after the season with the team getting nothing for its trouble.
The Hornets lost Paul but got hope in his place. And no matter how good Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and whoever is chosen with the first-round pick and plugged into Chris Kaman's $12 million of cap space next season, it's all unfortunate. It's the way the sausage is made.
This was better, in retrospect, than the veteran players who would've been conveyed in the three-team trade Stern killed last week -- the one bringing Lamar Odom from the Lakers and Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic from the Rockets. That one also would've brought more than $24 million in guaranteed salary next season, which would've caused any prospective owner this side of Mark Cuban to close the books and walk out of the room. I was wrong about that -- or rather, I overreacted. But which trade was better was a subjective judgment, one that the commissioner shouldn't have been making and should never make again.
"I would recommend only to the most hearty with the thickest of skins that they do this," Stern said.
The star-crossed Clippers? They got one of the dynamic stars of the league to pair with Blake Griffin in what promises to be among the most thrilling aerial acts in modern NBA history. They got that for two years, which is more than most NBA franchises can say. The owner, Donald Sterling, got something he hasn't earned and by all accounts doesn't deserve -- a worthwhile product, and in all likelihood, a winning team.
It will go down in NBA lore as one of the cruelest ironies that a despicable owner like Sterling would receive such a generous gift at a time of unrest and conflict for the game.
What do we get? We get a break. We get to avert our eyes from the blow-by-blow of how the sausage is made. The problems won't go away; the realities of deal-making, strong-arming, bullying and dictatorship will endure, just out of view -- just like in a big business. We'll be back to post-mortems and dissections and exhuming bodies from whence they're buried soon enough.
But now, after all this, it's probably best just to look the other way for a while and watch some games.