Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What We Want and What We Need: The NBA Lockout and Two Weeks of NBA Basketball Gone

I want to stay positive. I want to believe that my cynicism is just a side effect of my low income, advancing age and the progressing intensity of my already titanic hangovers. I want to know that the singular professional athletic organization that brings my otherwise joyless existence meaning and purpose will once again take over my life in a way that seems incomprehensible to the average man. I want to be able to write blog posts with ease and not have to keep open seven baseball-reference.com pages at the same time in order to compose my otherwise unsupported and borderline irresponsible, but strong opinions. I want the NBA season to commence. I want to believe that it will commence in a way that does not compromise the integrity of what I consider to be the most fascinating American sport, not just for the competition of the men who perform, but for the psychology that goes along with every game, every season and every career.

I kept twitter open last night. Not just to log-on and respectfully check up on the fervent 22 followers of @TheGreatMambino, but also to keep Ken Berger's updates constantly running on my computer. With the cataract of pessimism that clouds my vision, I was following that twitter feed with my heart, not my eyes. Despite the reports that the owners and players were merely close to solving a minor issue like the mid-level exception rather than a hard-line issue like Basketball-Related Income or the luxury tax, I still checked that newsfeed as if it were a report on a latest blood test (good news Ma, I'm clean! Just in case you were wondering).

At first I didn't know what kept me refreshing and clicking. I have known for months that this would happen. I have been bracing for this ever since the Lakers got swept and the Mavs kept the NBA safe for another year. Why would I need to see that final confirmation to know that the term "82 games" would mean nothing this year?

Maybe I had a faint hope that perhaps a miraculous resolution would fall from the sky, and one of the sides would balk at the thought of losing millions of dollars. Maybe both sides would come together and realize that hundreds of people that don't cut the checks or cash the checks for playing basketball will lose their jobs and houses, and have their lives completely turned upside down. Maybe they'd realize that these men and women that work concession stands, parking lots or sit up in their cubicles managing ticket sales on their excel spreadsheets will be out of work. While the players and owners are fighting over $300 million dollars going one way or the other, film editors, equipment managers and athletic trainers will have their lives changed because they can't pull in $50,000 this year.

Or maybe I was just waiting for a resolution, that final death rattle. I just needed to know that the miracle would not be pulled off. I needed that confirmation that the good will created by one of the finest seasons in NBA history would be sullied by a labor dispute. I needed to know that I was right all along, and that even my intense love for the NBA and sadness of it being gone was not big enough to trump my ego. But most importantly, I needed to give up all the hope I just talked about. I needed the Old Yeller treatment. NBA Commissioner David Stern gave it to me:

"We're very far apart on virtually all issues. ... We just have a gulf that separates us."

According to Chris Broussard, the two sides disagree on just about everything: the mid-level exception, players' Bird Rights, length of contracts, the Basketball-Related income split, how much the luxury tax would be and the length of this Collective Bargaining Agreement. Looking at that sentence right there - it seems to be just about all of the same problems there were 3 years ago when every person in the NBA knew that this lockout was coming. I'm sure a lot of people will criticize the league for not getting to sit down negotiations sooner, but the fact is that neither side was going to budge two years ago, just as they are not now. The issues are more crystallized, I suppose, but I don't know that any meetings or negotiations after the 2009 season would have fixed this broken model any more than than it has now.

I understand both sides of this argument, and they are both right and wrong in their own ways. Like any other facet of business in America, the players should understand that the country is in a recession, and that no matter how big the gross dollars are that the league pulls in year-to-year, that they are not above taking a pay cut similar to the millions of other people who have had to do so in this country. The players also have to understand that the long-term health of the league is at stake if they stubbornly refuse to take their fair share of responsibility in order to be a part of this association which has afforded them lifestyles completely beyond their reach if not for their playing of this game of arbitrary goals and movement. The players have to see that they are not the only people that contribute to the NBA's success. If money isn't taken out of their pockets, it's going to be taken from the hundreds of other people that contribute to the game. Despite the raw monetary discrepancy, a quarter of $4 million dollars is not the same as a quarter of $55,000 dollars. The players want this season, but don't think they need it. I'm not sure how much time it will take until they realize that the latter isn't entirely true.

The owners have to realize that the players, like any other workers in this country, are fighting for their rights afforded to them under a capitalist government. Pundits, fans and people around the country must realize that even if players are quibbling over millions while most of us scratch and claw to make thousands or hundreds, that no matter how outrageous the amount, the players have the right to protect an income that they were given and work for. Regardless of the sum, there is no person in this country that is going to willingly and happily give up 10% of his or her salary. The owners have a responsibility to respect the union of their workers, and own up to the financial missteps they've made. The owners want this season just like the players, but they don't need it.

Because like I've said, this is an owner's league. I believe that this lockout will only end when the players have had enough and realize that their rope is not longer than the guys who own the rope factory. But by the time they all realize it, it will be too late to save The Big Three's last season in Boston, the rise of the Thunder, the fall of the Magic and the Miami Heat, Season 2. For an unscripted sport where the inertia of a leather ball is the deciding factor in winning or losing, there seems to be more perfect plot points and threads going into the 2011-2012 season than could possibly be written by a team of screen writers. Some will remain, but most will never be resolved. Beyond the practical and much more important ramifications of the lockout, like people's lives being altered, we are losing the best theater that reality can muster. With everything I've heard and read, I am becoming more and more pessimistic by the day that a resolution will come in time to have anything resembling a competitive season of NBA basketball.

Even if the season were to start sometime in the winter, this is going to be a wet, ditto machine copy of what an NBA season should look like. Truncated training camps mean that teams with new coaches, offensive systems and defensive schemes are going to look terrible coming out of the gate. Check: Lakers, Timberwolves, Rockets, Warriors and Pistons. Shorter notice that the offseason is ending and lack of time to ease into the heavy strain that is 48 minutes of physical intensity is going to have severe effects on teams with older legs. Check: Celtics, Spurs and Mavericks. A rapid-fire offseason is going to leave many teams with holes to fill in navigating towards an NBA title after decisions and negotiations that should take weeks take hours. Check: Bulls, Thunder, Heat and Magic. The playoffs will resemble the 1999 Finals, where the top seeded Spurs played the eighth seeded Knicks, a championship that rightfully deserves an asterisk next to it. Parts of me wants whatever I can get in the form of whatever 2011-2012 season turns into, if anything at all, but perhaps we don't really need it. What I want is the NBA back, not a wet, ditto machine copy.

No matter how bleak the outlook in the coming weeks and months of the lockout, I have no doubt that there will be days where once again Ken Berger will be the master of my internet browser and I will submit to his every tweet. I will hang on to every Chris Broussard report and Chris Mannix blog post and hope that somehow I don't quite understand the issues at stake or the level the negotiations are at and that the agreement will be made somewhat surprisingly to me. Even so, this is not what we should be focusing on in October. This is not what I should be writing about in October. I am sad in some ways, devastated in most, but at this point, relieved to have it set it in stone.

This is not at all what I wanted. But right at this point, it's what I needed. Thanks, David, for taking us out back.

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