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David Aldridge

Chauncey Billups, players
NBA players such as Chauncey Billups now belong to a trade association instead of a union.
Patrick McDermott/NBAE/Getty Images

Rather than surrendering, players decide to push back


Posted Nov 14 2011 7:46PM

Labor Central
Comparing the offers
Stern's memo to players with complete offer (PDF)
Stern's statement

Because this ain't about education! It ain't much about winning, and it sure as hell ain't much about basketball. It's about money! Just (bleeping) money!

--Climactic scene from the movie Blue Chips, 1994, when the coach, Pete Bell, acknowledges his role in violating the rules in college basketball to put a winning team on the court

NEW YORK -- And boom, goes the season.

It has always been about the money in the NBA. You never had to worry about that phone call at 3 a.m. saying some 18-year-old kid was busted for selling oxycontin, or wait to see if the kid with the wicked crossover but the 550 SATs had magically improved his score 400 points in six weeks. You never had to schmooze oily boosters or other "friends of the program" with their summer jobs that, oddly, involved very little work for the youngsters, or deal with egomaniacal head coaches talking ad nauseum about their precious systems and how it was all about educating the kids, only to leave those kids in the lurch at the drop of a cellphone when the next school came singing its siren song -- the one about the eight-figure contract and the condo in the hills.

No, in the NBA, it has always been about the money, and no one tried to make you believe differently.

Monday, though, was about the principle.

"Right now, it's about seeking treble damages against the NBA, and basically wiping the slate clean," Billy Hunter said after the presser in which he announced that the National Basketball Players Association he was executive director of was -- at least for now -- no more.

"This deal could have been done," Hunter said. "It should have been done. We've given and given and given. They got to the place where they just reached for too much. And the players decided to push back. They just thought it was totally unfair, and it was more about surrender than it was making a deal."

David Stern was equally grim on ESPN Monday afternoon, speaking of "nuclear winter" between his owners and the players.

"Frankly, by this irresponsible action at this late date, Billy Hunter has decided to put the season in jeopardy and deprive his union members of an enormous payday," Stern said, and maybe the league imposes its "reset" proposal now, and maybe it cancels the rest of the season in a week or two. Either way, there will not be much of a 2011-12 NBA season to write home about.

The season may well die now, with the likelihood of months of litigation high. Even though the NFL Players Association took a similar path when locked out in March, there is no guarantee that a judge will attempt to mediate the dispute and get the NBA and what is now the former Players Assocation back to the bargaining table to hammer out a deal, as Minnesota Chief Magistrate Arthur Boylan. Different, too, is the timing: the football non-union filed suit in March, days after the players were locked out. The NBA's now non-union waited four months, during which time it tried to hammer out a deal with the league, to no avail. There is always a chance, even after the union officially dissolves, that lawyers could talk to lawyers and get the process cooking again. But it's a longshot now. The season bleeds away.

"I'm an older guy," said guard Keyon Dooling, vice president of the former union. "So every year that I miss is one that I can't get back. So it's frustrating. But more important than just playing basketball, we've got to fight for what we believe is right. Obviously, we want to play basketball, but under the conditions that were presented to us, it wouldn't be a conducive working environment, I don't believe."

But on Monday, pro basketball players -- not all, but the ones who were here were the only ones who counted -- decided they would rather not play, thank you, than take a deal many could not stand and few could support -- at least publicly. (More on that below.) So the union is no more, replaced by a "trade association" -- the very name conjures up a hydrangea salesman's convention, not that there's anything wrong with hydrangea salesmen -- and Stern has his worst possible nightmare, the coupling of his good friend Jeff Kessler, the union's pit bull of a lawyer, with the renowned attorney David Boies, last seen by many successfully rolling back California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 with former solicitor general Ted Olsen, but also seen recently working the courts for the NFL after its lockout began.

In fact, Hunter was so sure Boies would likely be working for the NBA this time around, he almost didn't pick up the phone. But he did, and Boies, whom Hunter first noticed along with thousands of others when he was chosen by the Justice Department as one of the U.S. government's attorneys in the United States v. Microsoft case in 1998, was available.

Boies is a superstar in his field, much like Tim Duncan and Shaq and Kobe are in theirs. He will be representing a group that believes, whether one agrees with the position or not, that the NBA has spent the past 15 years cutting off unfettered access to the ATM.

Kids once came out of college because their rookie pro contracts were the big payday. But the implementation of the rookie wage scale in 1995 changed that. Afterward, the goal was to come out of school as early as possible to "start the clock," as the agents say, get the rookie deals out of the way as soon as possible so that the players could cash in on the extensions, or the free agent deals.

For the superstars, whether they were genial and quiet like Duncan, or outsized and incorrigable like Shaq, or brash and profane like Bryant, the message was the same as well: pay me. Duncan was no less ruthless in 2003, when it was time for the Spurs to cough up, as Shaq was a couple of years later -- he held San Antonio over a barrel, flirted strongly with the Magic and made Gregg Popovich's agita kick up like you wouldn't believe before the Spurs came correct with the loot. When Jerry Buss made it clear he'd like to think about it before extending Shaq, the Diesel went ballistic, cussin' and snortin' and talkin' his way out of town -- just in time for Buss to bestow $120 million on Bryant, the Lakers' new franchise player.

The role players found their pipeline to a hefty payday with the mid-level exception, which was originally designed as a tradeoff after the 1998 lockout. In exchange for caps on the superstars' top salaries -- Kevin Garnett's $126 million deal in 1996 has yet to be topped 15 years later -- teams would make sure there was a burgeoning middle class in the NBA, and, presumably, be able to keep important players in their rotation. (Adjusted for inflation, KG's 1996 contract would have cost the Timberwolves $173,273,551.56 in 2010. I didn't do the math on my fingers; I used this handy-dandy Web site thingy.)

On occasion, a solid player like Chauncey Billups or Hedo Turkoglu helped their teams reach Finals series after getting MLEs. Sometimes, a young player like Larry Hughes in Washington got stability with an MLE, played above his head for a couple of years, then cashed in, as Hughes did by getting $65 million from the Cavs in 2005 after his three-year, $15 million MLE with the Wizards expired. But, increasingly, the MLE was used to reward one-year wonders, guys who had one above average season. Brian Cardinal parlayed one modest year, his 2003-04 season in Golden State -- 9.6 points, 4.2 rebounds -- into a $39 million deal with Memphis the following summer. Jerome James did Cardinal one better, turning one good playoff series with Seattle in 2005 against Duncan and the Spurs into a $30 million MLE bonanza with the Knicks.

Same with coaches and general managers, whose salaries began to swell in the late '90s and grow and grow with the new millennium, as teams desperate to catch up to the elites or elites desperate to remain elite paid through the nose -- $7 million per year for George Karl in Milwaukee in the late '90s, $10 million per for Larry Brown in New York in 2005 -- a deal that only lasted one season, with Brown being fired in 2006 and settling for $18.5 million of the remaining $40 million on his deal in a compromise orchestrated by the Commish himself -- $12 million for Phil Jackson in Los Angeles in 2008-09 and a new five-year, $35 million deal for Doc Rivers today in Boston. General managers have gotten richer, too, with $2 and $3 million annual salaries no longer uncommon.

And I never had a problem with any of that. This was all about what the market could bear. If owners had the cash and the inclination to write the checks, more power to them.

But that's all gone now. The league gambled that it could persuade players to take the last proposal, and lost. Hunter gambled that he could make a deal with Stern, and lost. Everyone lost. You lost. I lost. The people who need the checks from working NBA games at arenas and in the neighborhoods that house them lost. Everywhere, losses, because the atmosphere between the union and its owners has gotten toxic, like it did between baseball's union and MLB in the llate '80s, when it became more important for each side to win a fight than to keep the game healthy. And so, baseball lost a World Series in 1994, and it took Cal Ripken -- and then, frankly, the steroids era -- to bring the fans back. What on earth will it take to resucitate a sport like the NBA, which doesn't have 15 decades of history and goodwill built up with the American public?

Maybe that's needed.

Maybe it will take a lost season for everyone to remember how easily people can forget about you.

I have no problem with the non-union's decision if it is indeed reflective of the body of its players. My chief concern going into Monday's meeting was that there were players who wanted to take the deal the league was offered, but were either afraid or were kowtowed into silence by their agents or their fellow players. I wanted an honest vote, and if the majority wanted to take the deal, so be it. If a majority wanted to scotch the proposal and tell the league to try again, no problem. As long as they were being honest with themselves, and with each other.

I was going to hurl if I read one more time about how the players' union hadn't "educated" the players on the details of the lockout. How many regional meetings, conference calls, Skypes and pamphlets did they need before it sank in? How could an NBA player, who had been barred from working out at his facility for the last four months, who couldn't have contact with his coaches, who couldn't work out with his team's trainers, who was part of a union that had conceded approximiately $3 billion of his future salaries to try and save his job, still not have a rudimentary understanding of the issues involved? It was one thing not to know the minutae of the different offers between the league and the union on, say, the repeater tax (how much extra tax does the NBA want on the third $5 million?). It was another to have no idea at all of what was going on, or why. If you didn't know, pick up the damn phone and ask or text someone who did.

But that's now water under the bridge. We are left to contemplate what will be left of the NBA when this ends, whether that's in a month or two months or opening night of the 2012 season. Who the hell knows, now?

Remember basketball? Or, more to the point, basketball after the '98-'99 lockout? Very little memorable hoop; a lot of godawful shooting, and low scoring, and the beginnings of almost a decade in the doldrums. The parallels between that year and this one are frighteningly similar--coming off a huge season (the '97-'98 campaign was Jordan's last in Chicago, producing the last of the Bulls' six championships) with huge Finals ratings, combined with great interest in a young, up and coming Draft class (the 1996 Draft, with Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Steph Marbury, Steve Nash, Antoine Walker, Jermaine O'Neal and a kid named Kobe, was just starting to take root, just as the '03 Draft has come to define the current player era), made for a bright, bright future.

And then, the abyss.

One shudders to think what the quality of play will be like when a deal is made by the courts or by negotiations, or a combination of the two. Think about how much this has taken out of the 37-year-old Derek Fisher, the union president and starting point guard for the Lakers, mentally and emotionally. And Fish is maniacal about staying in shape; imagine what those who've taken it easy will look like when they have to go up and down the floor a few dozen times on short notice.

"You don't know what they've been doing all summer," said one concerned general manager. "You remember '99. You remember how poor the conditioning some of our guys were. The injury factor was prevalent. The quality of play wasn't as good."

But that's for the future. Today, the season is dying, and there is nothing any of us can do about it. Those of us who tried to understand the players' belief that they were being asked to subsidize the poor financial decisions of owners and their general managers were accused of being a tool of the union and biased against businessmen. Those of us who said we understood the need for both sides to share the risk and rewards going forward in a 50-50 split of BRI were dismissed as NBA propagandists.

You were neither.

You were a guy that, like everyone else, just wanted his basketball back, and couldn't figure out why, after all these months of meetings and proposals and counterproposals, they still couldn't figure out how to split the $4 billion.

I get that businesses should have a chance to be meaningfully profitable as they define it on Wall Street -- at a 10 to 15 percent operating profit. I get that NBA owners saw the steadily declining profit margin of NFL teams -- from 14 percent to around four percent from 2006 to 2010, before the NFL worked out a new CBA with its players -- and got the willies. I get that the days of easy debt that previous owners had, where they had access to however much cash they needed to stay liquid and pay the bills, are over. I get that Joe Lacob and Peter Guber paid $450 million for the Warriors and wonder when they'll ever make a dime off of that business. I get that.

But I also get that players only get a bite or two out of the apple, and that they have steadily been boxed in for the last few decades. The salary cap (1983) wasn't enough. The rookie wage scale (1995) wasn't enough. The limits on maximum salaries (1998) wasn't enough. The escrow accounts and luxury tax (2005) wasn't enough. I get that players can justifiably ask, when will enough be enough?

Monday, they stopped asking. And the season, and all of its promise, began to disappear over the horizon, a once-beautiful image now coarsened and laid bare by the avarice of men.

It's about money. Just (bleeping) money.

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Well, Sidney Crosby doesn't have Jose's crossover. From Joseph Darren:

The average NBA salary [$5,150,000] is by far the highest of the four major leagues. It is more than double the average NFL salary [$1,900,000] or NHL [$2,400,000]. The highest salaried superstar in the NHL makes what Jose Calderon makes [almost $10,000,000 annually].

And since the NBA isn't the most profitable or the most popular sports league I have a hard time justifying the players' demands especially in the global economy we live in today.

You and I may have different definitions of popular, Joseph. Of course the NFL and Major League Baseball are more popular sports than the NBA. But I would wager Kobe Bryant is more popular individually than any quarterback in the NBA (maybe not Tom Brady?) or any pitcher in the big leagues. The NBA has been built on star players dating back to the first one, George Mikan. People came to see him, not the Minneapolis Lakers.

But, you're right, NBA players as a whole make more than any other group of pro athletes, and they will continue to. I humbly submit part of the reason why is what I stated above, part is that they have (and will keep) guaranteed contracts, and part is there are fewer of them (450) than there are hockey, football or baseball players. And, you're also right, given the global recession, a person making more than $5 million is a one-percenter. But their "demands" are the same ones you or any other working person would have: this is my salary. I don't want it cut. And I don't want to give back $3 billion in collective salaries to management.

I should walk a mile (high) in his shoes. From Jason Mitchell:

Can you explain what Carmelo Anthony did that was so wrong last year? I'm not even a particularly big fan of his (non-Olympic) game, but was flabbergasted by all the venom directed his way, and surprised to see you write this week that he held Denver "hostage."

Neither party is ever under any legal or ethical obligation to renew an expiring contract. Denver offered to renew a summer early, and Carmelo declined. What was he supposed to do if he didn't think he wanted to play in Denver anymore? Sign (forfeiting all leverage and the free agency rights for which his predecessors fought so hard) and then demand a trade? How is that better? Further, identifying a team or teams with which he would re-sign allowed the Nuggets to haul in a huge catch in exchange for his services. He could have refused to commit to signing anywhere, left the Nuggets empty-handed or nearly empty-handed, played the field as a free agent in the summer, and signed with a team not gutted by a trade with Denver.

Did he waver, send mixed messages, and at times seem confused about what he really wanted, especially in the fall? Absolutely. Can't a man be a little unsure about a career-defining and life-altering move almost a year before his current contract expires?

Did he kill a deal to New Jersey? Probably. So what? Players earned their free agency rights. Why should Carmelo Anthony live and work somewhere he doesn't want to live or work just to "do right" by the Nuggets?

I just don't understand why players exercising their free agency are being covered lately with the disdain usually reserved for holdouts and players making trade demands early in contracts. Carmelo signed a contract with Denver, honored it, and decided to move on. What's the big deal? From the tone of the coverage, it seems many in the media would prefer players had never earned free agency rights, which is depressing to say the least.

You never heard me say Carmelo didn't have the right to play out his contract, Jason. And he certainly has the right to decide he wants to live and work wherever he pleases. But if you were around the Nuggets, as I was, many times last season, the words "held hostage" are completely accurate. His teammates grew weary of not knowing when or if he'd be traded; his coach couldn't coach the rest of the team because of it, and a team that had great potential at the start of the year was greatly diminished. Did 'Melo do the right thing by letting the Nuggets know a year ahead of time that he wanted out? Absolutely. Did it have a major impact on the team last season? Same answer.

Send your comments, questions, criticisms and nominations for new Academy Awards host -- and who wouldn't want to see Mr. Abe Vigoda back on the big stage? -- to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently interesting, funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!

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$8,995,000: Price asked for this South Florida residence by Miami Heat forward Mike Miller, who put the house up for sale last week. Hey, it's got butler's quarters!

$750,000: Approximate amount still owed by former Celtics star Antoine Walker to three Las Vegas casinos. Walker pled guilty last June in Nevada to felony bad check charges and will be sentenced Dec. 6 after his scheduled sentencing date last week was pushed back. He is not expected to serve time in jail while he attempts to make restitution on the debts. He had hoped to make a comeback in the NBA last season, but spent most of the year in the Developmental League.

136: Days since the lockout began.

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1) Regardless of where they stand, it's heartening to hear so many players will be in New York today. It's your future; you should get involved.

2) Good for Dorell Wright. The 510 could use some good news these days.

3) I know it's not NBA-related, but I love time-lapse photography/videography, and this breakdown of the eight-day transformation of the carrier deck of the USS Carl Vinson, docked in San Diego, into a basketball court for last Friday's Michigan State-North Carolina game is beyond cool. (H/T to CBSSports.com.)

4) You can safely assume I do not support Rick Perry for president. But he handled a brain freeze in front of millions -- which anyone who's been on television, yours truly included, has had happen more than once -- with grace and good humor afterward.

5) Needed some good news this week. Who thought it would come out of Venezuela?

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1) There is nothing that can be said that will make any sense out of what has transpired at Penn State this week. All we can hope for is that the young men that were, allegedly, grievously wounded by Jerry Sandusky will be able to find some level of solace and peace in the months and years to come. As for Joe Paterno, I do not profess to have a relationship with the man. By all accounts he has been above reproach for most of his life, walking the walk long before it became fashionable. But he will have to answer for his response when presented with evidence that there was evil -- that word chosen on purpose -- taking place on his campus. And, make no mistake, Penn State is his campus. He answers to no one; he reports to no one. If he wanted it stopped, it would have been stopped. For whatever reason, he chose to do only that which was required of him, and no more. That is not enough, when children are being harmed, and you know they're being harmed, and you don't do everything you can to stop it. For God's sake, have someone make an anoymous phone call to the police, at the least.

1a) This is much more eloquent than I have been above.

2) RIP, Ed Macauley. Your life was much more than the answer to the trivia question, "who on earth did the St. Louis Hawks trade for Bill Russell?"

3) Call in any time, Mr. Checketts. Always glad to hear from you.

4) Maybe STAT thought he was helping the cause. He did not.

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Been losing a lot weight. Can't wait to Show you guys what I've been doing. Ayo baby

Celtics -- and free agent -- forward Glen Davis (@iambigbaby11), Tuesday, 3:27 p.m., letting both the Celts and prospective suitors know that he's in much better shape this season than last, which was a disappointing campaign. Davis says he's lost 25 pounds in the offseason with improved diet and harder workouts.

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"If I had any idea that Shaq wanted to learn from me, I would have been happy to have worked with him, but all indications that I had received was that he felt he was doing fine and he didn't need or want my help."

-- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, responding on his Facebook page on Wednesday to comments Shaquille O'Neal made in his book that he had an interest at one point in his career asking Abdul-Jabbar for advice but decided against doing so.

"It's just kind of a weird story. It's not like I can go down to the bike shop and buy a new bike. It'd be the same if my clothes were stolen."

-- Former NBA player Shawn Bradley, whose custom made bike -- with an 80-centimeter frame -- was briefly stolen from his Utah home last week before being recovered by the police. The 7-foot-6 Bradley can't just walk into The Bike Shop and buy off the rack.

"Kessler's conduct is routinely despicable."

-- Commissioner David Stern, to the Washington Post, on union lawyer Jeff Kessler, who had compared NBA owners to "plantation owners" to the Post. Kessler later apologized for making the analogy.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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

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