Posted Jul 13 2010 9:48AM
The next time you see a professional athlete stick out his chin, throw back his shoulders and say with a big, fat dose of crossover pride, "I'm a businessman," you might want to gently remind that fellow that he shouldn't mess up a good thing.
Athletes enjoy a great deal of freedom that businessmen do not. Especially when it comes to forming cartels and dictating the power, popularity and future competitive balance of the leagues in which they play.
If Micky Arison, Richard Peddie and Dan Gilbert -- owners or CEOs of the Miami Heat, the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers -- got together behind closed doors to share their corporate visions and strategic thinking for the next five or six seasons, they would be accused of collusion. If one or more of them personally, or through emissaries, whispered sweet somethings to others' under-contract players, they would face charges of tampering.
Heck, if one of them went on camera and joked about luring so-and-so to town with a minimum contract and a crate of canned hams, he might get whacked with a $50,000 fine.
But if Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James get together, no harm. If one of them tries to sell the others on uniting on one bully ballclub -- even if those merits have been spelled out by a crafty team president and scribbled crib-sheet style on a wrist band -- hey, no foul. As players, they can tweet, blog, wink and smirk with impunity. The NBA can do nothing about it.
"Our players, having negotiated for the right to be free agents at some point in their career, are totally within their rights to seek employment with any other teams," commissioner David Stern told reporters at a media briefing at the NBA's summer league. "And that's something that we agreed to and that's something we embrace and that's our system."
The huddle by Wade, Bosh and James that resulted in all three signing new contracts with the Heat had brought cries of protest that the players had circumvented the NBA's rules that allegedly prevent teams from pursuing each other's free agents until July 1. The plan to join forces on a Super Team in Miami had been hatched, critics said, as long ago as 2006 when the trio synchronized their shorter-than-available contracts for free-agent freedom in 2010.
But no such rules apply to players, Stern said, and there were no formal complaints or requests for an investigation from the owners or their reps.
"The three players are totally, as our system has evolved, within their rights to talk to each other," Stern said. "That is not tampering or collusion that is prohibited. That's our rule, right now."
Interesting, those last two words. "Right now." There's a whole bunch of "right now" afoot in the NBA these days, things that might not be happening when a new collective bargaining agreement finally is in place.
As much as the circus of free agency boosted the league's overall profile, it had its embarrassing and unseemly sides, too. The month began with players and teams courting each other like a wolves courting sheep, and lasted through the schlock-TV cringer, "The Decision," last Thursday. In between, owners who next summer will be sloshing in red ink were giving up lavish contracts to the likes of Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and others of spotty resumes.
The nadir, though, came with James' announcement of taking his "talents to South Beach" to team up with Wade and Bosh. At that moment, the sense that the best players want to compete against the best rather than team up to crush lesser foes -- a bedrock of competition all the way down to the playground -- got trampled beyond anything previously seen in NBA history.
These three players were buddies, partly because they arrived together in the 2003 Draft and partly because they spent more time together as members of the USA Basketball squad that won Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008. The organizers had stressed camaraderie and, well, James, Wade and Bosh bought into that in buckets.
Each already had logged seven seasons in the NBA by this summer, amassing enough of a fortune that the first hurdle to teaming up -- accepting less than maximum dollars -- was reduced to inches rather than feet.
They had chased championships with their original teams -- James and Bosh unsuccessfully, Wade winning just once -- and weren't eager to re-up for five or six more years of that struggle. Meanwhile, they had seen a convergence of three other stars win a title in Boston (2008), bonding and bantering all the way.
One of these three, Wade, already played in a glamour market while the other two did not. And Wade's team -- through crafty maneuvering, all nice and legal, right up to the signing period -- could take on two additional superstar salaries.
Collusion? Nope. Tampering? Nah. It immediately left a bad taste in some purists' mouths. It surely diminished at least two of the three; Wade was just doing what franchise players are supposed to do by planting a flag and attracting talented teammates. But it didn't appear to break any rules, and with Stern's verdict, it officially has not.
What rankled so many people and started the muttering about tampering was how James in particular -- with his overhyped decision show and cold, public rejection of Cleveland -- chose buddy-ball over competition. He is taking an easier path to what might become a devalued ring, rather than heroically dragging an NBA title to his home area of northeast Ohio. He couldn't even heroically persuade Bosh to play there.
There are some who objected, too, to three players having so much control over their own fates and shaping the league. Things like that used to be left to rumpled men in dark back rooms to hoodwink rivals into delivering the league's top talent to one market or another. Red Auerbach, Jerry West and Jerry Krause, to name a few, did that masterfully for years.
This time, that control got pushed down to the players' level. This time, it wasn't agent David Falk linking lucrative new contracts for Stephon Marbury, Keith Van Horn and Kerry Kittles in New Jersey. It was Wade, James and Bosh taking care of themselves. Period.
That'swhere the tampering and collusion gripes gain a little traction.
Wade, James and Bosh weren't acting like labor anymore, they were behaving like management. Their enormous personal wealth allows them to make decisions that -- unlike most of the worker-bees on the league's 30 rosters -- no longer are driven by maximizing their net earnings. They're brokering deals, tilting the game board, divvying up eastern Europe.
They talk about themselves as "brands" while employing entourages that stretch out to second-cousin horizons. They command meetings with the guys in suits as if they were business partners, not heavily paid employees. Quite distinct from the franchises that pay them, the elite players have their own teams staffed with advisors, consultants, childhood friends and Ferrari washers.
So now that they're navigating within the existing rules, they seem more than ever like ... drum roll ... real owners.
Stern was unruffled Monday, the same day Internet rumblings began about Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul thinking, maybe next season, of teaming with Amar'e Stoudemire in New York. Baseball heard that sort of chatter at its All-Star Break, too -- how 'bout Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki and Ryan Zimmerman ganging up in one clubhouse? -- so the NBA might be setting a trend it would rather avoid.
"The system is the system that we're living under," Stern said. "Our teams are urged to compete. The teams go out and try to outhustle each other.
"Miami did a pretty good job of clearing out cap space and putting together a plan."
How the Heat and the players executed that plan is within the NBA's rules. Right now.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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