Ego-weary word to NBA: Don't hurry back

January 06, 1999|By John Eisenberg

The NBA's labor crisis has reached the all-important "drop dead" phase, which, given the public's feelings for both sides, seems particularly well-named in this case.

With the union set to vote on the owners' "final" offer today, and with the league's Board of Governors threatening to vote to kill the 1998-99 season tomorrow, we should know soon whether there'll be a season.

In a related issue, we'll also know whether the players might have to sell off their beach homes and/or fifth cars.

The public's response to it all? Well, it's hard to get a pulse. Primarily because there is no pulse.

The vast majority of sports fans, serious and otherwise, simply don't care whether the NBA has a season or just up and disappears into hyperspace.

The owners and players might want to stop and think about that for a minute as they sit around disagreeing on how to carve up their billions.

The squabble might seem as important to them as life its ownself, but no one else gives a whit.

Amazingly enough, people are carrying on easily and quite happily without their daily dose of the Grizzlies and Clippers. Imagine that.

Sixty-three percent of the nation's sports fans don't care if the NBA season ever starts, according to an ESPN poll taken last fall. And that was before the players scheduled an all-star game in December to help their "needy," a concept that surely created more ex-fans.

At this point, you're lucky to find anyone outside of Karl Malone's immediate family who cares if the NBA ever takes another dribble.

The '98-99 season is circling the drain, as the old saying goes, and the public is chanting, "Go! Go! Go!"

Of the many miscalculations both sides have made in this sorry affair, the biggest was that anyone would care.

It's not a surprise when you think about it. Where's the rooting interest in this thing? It's like a shoot-'em-up movie with bad guys holding all the guns.

Not even the staunchest union believer can work up a shout over the Larry Bird exception, which protects the players' right to earn $30 million a year and, just guessing, probably wasn't what labor pioneer Samuel Gompers had in mind as a core issue.

And as for the owners, half of whom are billionaires, they're taking their usual hardball stance only to protect themselves from their own stupidity. Terrific.

Both sides keep claiming the conflict is all about money, but it's obviously not because there's more than enough to go around. Some $1.7 billion flowed through the industry last year. That's enough.

No, the conflict is all about ego, about which side gets to declare victory. And with an entire season about to go down for that ridiculous reason, well, give the fans credit for establishing the line of absurdity below which they simply wouldn't go.

Their attitude? Sorry, but this one is just too stupid to care about.

It's pretty funny, actually. NBA commissioner David Stern and the players stuck to their hardball demands because they thought their game was as essential to the nation as, say, major-league baseball. Brother, were they wrong.

If not for Michael Jordan, their league would only be a little more popular right now than pro wrestling. OK, maybe that's a stretch. But how much of one?

Yes, the NBA has made great gains in the past 20 years, and yes, basketball is now enormously popular around the world and at home. But the NBA doesn't have the history, tradition and general hold on the public of baseball.

Even with its many problems, major-league baseball is still far more essential to more people than NBA basketball.

There was no substitute for major league games when baseball had labor problems that ultimately killed the 1994 World Series. That's why it caused such anger among the fans, anger that's only now starting to heal.

But there are plenty of substitutes for NBA games, as fans are finding out. They can just get into the NFL playoffs more. Get into college basketball more. Get into baseball more when it starts up again next month.

Getting along without the NBA is pretty easy, it turns out.

Sure, the hurt is worse in Chicago, Salt Lake City and other places where the NBA is a big deal. But those are the exceptions, not the rule.

And while everyone misses Jordan, the public's disgust for both sides and general lack of interest in the whole business is only going to increase if the lockout pushes Jordan into retirement, which seems more likely every day.

For the vast majority of fans across the country, this is already the sports labor stoppage that care forgot.

If it takes Jordan down, too, the NBA might as well forget about basketball and just start up a stock car circuit. Now there's a sport fans would really miss.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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