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Scott Howard-Cooper

Today's stars are much more aware of the looming labor situation than their contemporaries were in 1998.
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Unlike in '98, NBA's stars being realistic about labor deal

Posted Mar 2 2010 10:10AM

It's already different this time, no matter how things turn out next year, because players are involved in the labor process in a way their apathetic forerunners could not muster in the previous showdown with owners.

Back then, it was a lot of guys with surprisingly little interest in following developments even as the work stoppage raced toward reality, while the running joke was that the union rep for each team was whatever sucker wasn't in the room when the vote was taken.

Now, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade show up at the bargaining table as negotiations begin in earnest at All-Star weekend. It doesn't mean much in actuality, but for symbolism and as a sign of solidarity, a little glitter goes a long way. Splashy names are backing the process, headline writers take notice, and -- viola! -- no apathy.

Now (and this is where it really gets good) the stars are admitting they are concerned about a work stoppage. Their show-no-fear world on the court is gone, replaced by pragmatism in the new economic climate of commissioner David Stern offering to open the books to the union to prove that teams are heading toward combined losses of $400 million this season.

"I think you have to be worried, especially because everybody's been pointing to a lockout," Utah's Deron Williams said. "Guys are worried and hopefully we can get the issue resolved. But you see what happened with the preliminary thing that the owners passed out, and they said we're pretty far off."

Yes, the preliminary thing.

Owners made an initial offer the union regarded as unacceptable to the point that it refused to consider the proposal a proposal. So this can quickly swerve into tangled semantics, careening toward summer 2011 and the end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

This is not players showing weakness; this is them being realistic.

It's also not players moving into the fetal position. They know, though, that owners, via Stern, are experienced at this sort of thing and galvanized by bleeding oceans of red ink.

"It's something that we're going to have to deal with," Williams said. "Guys are definitely concerned."

Said Gerald Wallace, the Bobcats' All-Star forward: "It's never too early. This is the time you start making your preparations for that. Obviously, we want it to work out, but we have to prepare ourselves for the worst and start saving. Cut back on a few things. You prepare for the worst and hope it doesn't come, but if it does, at least you're prepared for it."

More players involved than before is obviously a good thing, for coalition building and the chance to trumpet their own resolve. A united front is headed by smart people -- Derek Fisher of the Lakers as president, Adonal Foyle of the Magic as first vice president.

It's perhaps the best way to start what could become a contentious process with the chance of splintering by players once the paychecks stop coming in -- if previous labor actions are any indication. It's the only way to start, really.

The greatest sign, though, is the awareness of the moment. This is not any other negotiation because this is not any other time, not with a worldwide financial squeeze and the concession that even rich owners head into the process with plans of making deep cuts. Players repeating their head-in-the-clouds act of the last time -- the 1998 lockout that resulted in a rushed 50-game schedule -- would be more devastating than ever (as if it wasn't repulsive enough for fans to hear the Knicks' Patrick Ewing promoting exhibition games as a means to raise funds for needy players).

"If you look at people who play professional sports, not a lot of them are financially secure," was the Ewing quote at the time. "They make a lot of money and they also spend a lot of money."

And Ewing was the union president.

Survival mode had to kick in as players fought through the dark hours. Kenny Anderson told the New York Times back in '98 that something had to give. He couldn't keep paying $75,000 a year on insurance and maintenance for eight cars, you know. "I have to start getting tight," he said.

Anything like that in the current negotiations and the players become scorched earth. Figure the union leadership will be sending out reminders that the "Woe is me!" stance won't fly very well in the worst economy since the Great Depression.

That doesn't mean it won't happen, but the players starting off realizing how serious owners are about changing the business model is an acknowledgement of today's unique circumstances.

Players know a lockout is possible. They know it's bad.

"I think everybody's paying attention to it, especially since the owners put their first proposal out there," said Raptors forward Chris Bosh. "It's never too early to start thinking about stuff like that."

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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