Stoppage a dunk for NBA greed

October 16, 1998|By John Eisenberg

If you think the NBA work stoppage makes no sense, ask yourself these questions: Is the league in good shape? Does it have any problems?

The answer, of course, is no, the league isn't in such hot shape. Yes, it does have problems. Big problems.

There are the ticket prices, now well beyond the reach of many average fans who might want to go to a game.

There are the absurdly large contracts being routinely given to young, decent but over-hyped players such as Kevin Garnett and Juwan Howard.

There is the public's antipathy for the league's new generation of stars -- and the fame and wealth those stars accumulate long before they accomplish anything, rendering winning a lot less important.

Oh, and don't forget the stories about widespread marijuana use reported in that noted scandal sheet, the New York Times.

Other than that, everything is swell.

In other words, the NBA is sick. For all the money pouring in --

the players and owners split $1.7 billion last year -- this is a league that needs help.

A league that needed to start doing things differently.

Hello, work stoppage.

As annoying as it is in the short run, and as damaging as it could be in the long run if most or all of a season is wiped out, it needed to happen.

You know the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Well, the NBA was "broke." It needed fixing.

High-end salaries are out of whack. The league's image, exclusive of Michael Jordan, is increasingly terrible. The public was becoming disdainful of pro hoops long before these labor woes.

Something had to happen. Now, maybe something will. Like putting marijuana on the list of banned substances, for instance. Duh.

Or raising the team payroll "limit" from $27 million to $45 million within four years, as NBA commissioner David Stern has proposed.

It's hardly a lowball offer.

If there's a rooting interest in this unseemly mud fight, a keeper of the game's flame, it's Stern.

No, he's not without blame, and yes, he's the one who chose to reopen the labor agreement and chart this suicide course. But he had the league's best interests in mind.

He was willing to ruin the NBA's perfect labor record because he recognized that the players and owners didn't need help, but the sport did.

That doesn't mean this work stoppage was a "necessary" evil. It's embarrassing for both sides that they couldn't reach an agreement.

The players have free agency, a $2.6 million average salary and a king's life. The owners have a salary cap system that has pushed franchise values to the moon while enabling large- and small-market teams to compete equally, unlike in baseball.

Both sides are living large, in other words. Their inability to carve up their money to everyone's satisfaction is the definition of greed.

Blame them both. The owners can't control themselves. They're the ones who offer these ridiculous contracts. And all the players care about is their right to make $20 million a year or more via the "Larry Bird exception" to their labor contract, under which teams can offer their own free agents as much as they want, even over the cap.

Basically, the players don't want any caps on their high-end possibilities, even if it means leaving little for teammates.

They and the owners care only about what's coming to them.

Stern, to his credit, sees the bigger picture. Yes, he also sees his $8 million salary. But he understands the league has problems. He understands something drastic had to happen.

He's not wrong to push for the elimination of the Bird exception and the installation of a steadily rising "hard" salary cap such as the one in the NFL.

Under those conditions, more players would get higher salaries, the average salary would still soar and superstars would get $15 million or more a year. Which is enough.

The players' union doesn't want to give up the Bird exception, of course. But that's a sellout of the union's middle and lower classes for the sake of a few superstars.

The union is stuck on getting a few guys obscenely rich, half of whom don't deserve it.

Meanwhile, it's no coincidence that surprisingly few fans even care that the NBA has left and gone away, with no return in sight.

The public is sick of players who are grievously overpaid and woefully under-appreciative. The public is going to care a lot less about an NBA without Jordan, the only player who deserves as much as $20 million a year.

Stern got the message. He realized it was time to draw the line on illogical salaries that were turning off fans.

A work stoppage that makes no sense? Shoot, considering the NBA's problems, Stern was wrong only if he hadn't taken a

stand.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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