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Steve Aschburner

Billy Hunter, David Stern
Billy Hunter (left) and David Stern were all smiles in January 1999, but not so much in December of '98.
Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport

Labor history stands as dire reminder of what could be again


Posted Jun 27 2011 11:56AM

NEW YORK -- David Stern finally exhaled. The lights and cameras had clicked off. Another update on the NBA's collective bargaining talks was done. Stern, the league's commissioner, gazed at the table top where he sat and to no one in particular said, "I'm tired."

Moments earlier, he had joked about the rigorous turnaround in his work schedule: Traveling over to Newark to emcee a global telecast of the 2011 NBA Draft on Thursday, working the "room" of the Prudential Center through the first round amid catcalls from some beery fans, then skedaddling home to prep for Friday's latest longish session of collective bargaining talks with the players association. It was the biggest meeting yet, with an estimated 40 additional players attending with the usual owners, lawyers and executives.

"I'm a little punchy," Stern said to reporters after Friday's five-hour session. "Is this the second round of the Draft or the third? ... I was asleep by the time Adam got to the names he couldn't pronounce." Deputy commissioner Adam Silver, as usual, handled the second-round chores, freeing Stern for the earlier ride home.

But here he was, a day later, speaking softly, looking tired and copping to it. The grind was enough to wear down men half his age, and the fact is, both Stern and National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter -- born 44 days apart in 1942 -- are 68 years old. If things get worse before they get better in these labor talks, and an NBA lockout stretches through autumn, they both could turn 69 with the matter still in dispute.

They were younger men, just 55, the last time the NBA peered into this particular abyss. But both added a disproportionate amount of grey to their haircuts back in 1998-99, wrangling over and through a lockout that lasted 191 days -- from no deal to deal -- and cost owners and players hundreds of millions of dollars, incalculable goodwill and 32 games off each team's schedule.

Beyond money, image and schedules issues, though, the league's worst lockout was a busy time. Nothing might have been happening in terms of progress toward a compromise during most of the six-plus months of darkness. But that doesn't mean nothing was happening.

If history is a guide -- and it sure ought to be, lest both parties repeat some of the mistakes from 13 years ago -- all sorts of things were happening during the last lockout. Hardly any of them, alas, had a thing to do with basketball.

Here is a timeline of some highlights and lowlights:

June 22, 1998: The ninth in-season bargaining session between the owners and the players stalls, with the players rejecting any discussion of a "hard" salary cap. (Sound familiar?).

June 30, 1998: The NBA announces that a lockout will begin the next day. Technically, it becomes the third one in league history, though the first two ended rather quickly with minimal impact.

July 1, 1998: Boston's Kenny Anderson becomes one of the first players to miss a paycheck (a reported $5.8 million). Most NBA players are paid during the season but a few have 12-month cycles or even lump-sum payments.

Aug. 6, 1998: The first bargaining session after talks stalled ends after just 90 minutes. Notice that date: The two sides went 45 days, from June 22, without formal talks.

Sept. 10, 1998: The NBA cancels an Oct. 12 exhibition game between Miami and Maccabi Elite of Israel. It is the first competition in league history to be lost for the lack of a CBA.

Sept. 24, 1998: Twenty-four preseason games are cancelled and the opening of training camps is postponed indefinitely.

Oct. 5, 1998: The balance of the 1998 preseason schedule is wiped clean.

Oct. 13, 1998: Five days after an unproductive session, the NBA loses its status as the only major U.S. sports league not to lose games to a labor dispute. The first two weeks of the regular season are canceled.

Oct. 26, 1998: A story in the New York Times reveals details of an unusually candid Kenny Anderson's finances. In it he notes that upkeep and insurance on his eight vehicles costs about $75,000 annually, and says, "I was thinking about selling one of my cars. I don't need all of them. You know, just get rid of the Mercedes." It becomes the second-most famous player quote of the lockout, right behind New York center Patrick Ewing's, "We make a lot of money but we spend a lot of money." No doubt those have been Exhibits A and B in players association huddles over what not to say if this year's talks unravel.

Oct. 28, 1998: The smell of sulfer is in the air after a meeting with full union membership. It stretches past midnight and features a pair of famous exchanges. In one, Chicago guard Steve Kerr calls parts of the owners' latest proposal "an insult," triggering a similar remark from Stern about the players' desired 63 percent split of revenues. More famously, the Bulls' Michael Jordan gets into it with Washington owner Abe Pollin (who later would hire him as a player and part-owner) and tells Pollin, "If you can't make a profit, you should sell your team." A young Stephon Marbury reportedly was amused, saying, "Get a load of the old dude."

Nov. 3, 1998: Arenas stay dark. Opening night of the 1998-99 season does not happen.

Nov. 20, 1998: The union and owners meet for 13 hours -- 13 hours! -- and report some significant progess. But five days later, the union clarifies that, saying it misunderstood a portion of the teams' proposal. The Nov. 25 session is cancelled.

Nov. 23, 1998: Bah, humbug! Now the Knicks-Bulls game scheduled for Christmas afternoon gets scuttled.

Dec. 1, 1998: One month out, a New Year's Day game between Seattle and Minnesota is cancelled, officially pushing the lockout into calendar 1999.

Dec. 4, 1998: After an 11-hour meeting, Stern says it is more likely there will not be an NBA season than the prospect of staging a curtailed one.

Dec. 7, 1998: Arranged by agents David Falk and Arm Tellem, the players announce an exhibition game to be played Dec. 19 in Atlantic City. Proceeds are earmarked both for charity and for locked-out players in "financial need."

Dec. 8, 1998: The 1999 All-Star Game, set for Philadelphia, is canceled. (No All-Star Game is played in the 50-game shortened season and Philadelphia has to wait until February 2001 to host the event.)

Dec. 19, 1998: Sixteen players participated in the exhibition game before a crowd of 9,512, with Ewing's team beating a squad headed by Alonzo Mourning 125-119. All proceeds were donated to charity after the "financial need" claim for a players' share earned public ridicule.

Dec. 23, 1998: Stern and Hunter meet in Los Angeles for five hours. The commissioner also sets a Jan. 7 deadline as the date he will recommend that the entire season be cancelled.

Dec. 27, 1998: Another session, this time in Denver, with the owners making what they say is their final proposal.

Dec. 30, 1998: The NBA sends the owners' latest version to all union members, asking that they put it to a vote. But the union's executive council rejects that idea and announces the next day that it will submit its last offer.

Jan. 4, 1998: Owners reject the union's final proposal in the first full negotiating session in nearly a month. Stern says the NBA might consider the use of replacement players for the 1999-2000 season, should the dispute linger that long.

Jan. 5 1998: Players converge on New York for a scheduled vote the next day on the union's decision to reject the owners' latest proposal. Unbeknownst to many, Stern and Hunter are meeting through the night to seek a compromise.

Jan. 6, 1998: With one day to spare before Stern's mandated deadline to salvage a season, after the principals' all-nighter of negotiating, the players vote on the final offer. It passes 179-5.

After the lockout came the fallout. Training camps were scrunched into a couple weeks' time and players scrambled to get into shape without hurting themselves (Shawn Kemp and Vin Baker didn't quite make it). Teams played just two hastily scheduled preseason games, limiting coaches' ability to install systems or adapt to new personnel. Free agency got rushed as well, teams were built on the fly (Joe Smith's illegal contracts in Minnesota were a direct result of the frenzy) and the season began on Feb. 5.

Jordan retired for the second time, and final time as a Bull, about a week after the lockout was lifted. Many players never earned back what they'd lost -- veteran forward Charles Oakley suffered mightily when his $10 million balloon payment vanished under the new rules -- and both sides suffered hits from negative publicity. Phil Jackson, sitting out that partial season, snarkily suggested that an asterisk be applied to the San Antonio Spurs' championship -- The Finals didn't end until June 25 -- but the fact is, the playoffs were the most unaffected part of the NBA's campaign.

Fans were courted back with open practices, public scrimmages, autograph signings and other promotions intended to salve the emotional wounds. That likely would be tried again and, in many ways, there is a new generation of NBA fans. But there also might be a fool-me-once, fool-me-twice reaction to it all.

"It took us about six or seven years to get back to where we were prior to the lockout in '98," Hunter said last week. "The detriment to the game is going to be significant. If there's a year-long lockout, the players stand to lose about $2 billion. The owners stand to lose just as much, in addition to diminishing the value of the franchise. ... There may be fans, particularly in this economy, that may walk away and never come back."

It was a long, painful, costly, grueling process, ultimately navigated by leaders -- Stern and Hunter -- who are committed, yes, but already tired too. And 13 years older.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. 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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