Looming lockout has Stern concerned

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

SAN ANTONIO -- The imminent NBA labour disruption should be nicknamed the Seinfeld Lockout.

You know, a lockout about nothing.

At least in the NHL, there never was any question of what the owners and players were fighting about. But the NBA? There aren't even any deal-breaking issues, are there?

"(The players) are making a tragic mistake in their calculation," NBA commissioner David Stern said last night when he met with the media prior to Game 2 of the NBA final.

"Given the coalition that has been put together by NBA owners to make this deal, to be this conciliatory, if July 1 comes and there's a lockout, the union will have made a mistake of epic proportions that I don't think the average member of the rank and file understands is taking place."

The NBA's collective-bargaining agreement with its players runs out on June 30, and no meetings are scheduled between now and then. Stern was asked if he has started to consider what he is going to say on July 1 to hoops fans who don't really care about the numbers and percentages, but can't believe the NBA would follow the NHL down the chute to hell.

"No, because the optimist I am, I remain disbelieving here," Stern said. "At a time when the world seems to be pretty much on fire ... (it's hard to believe) we couldn't come up with a way to divide up $3 billion (US) in revenue. It is incomprehensible, in some ways inexplicable, and I am not looking forward to it."

We're not going to go down the usual path of admonishing both sides as greed-meisters. Yes, it's rich people battling rich people for more riches. But apparently it's human nature, so we're not going to find philosophical fault.

Even if you have millions of dollars, you want more, and you certainly don't want to lose any. We would act the same way if we were rich (and if anyone wants to sponsor a test of that theory, an e-mail address appears at the bottom of this column).

But this is going to be the first lockout in recent memory that does not have an easily identifiable, central issue.

Stern's desire to raise the age limit from 18 to 19 (the first proposal was 20) has received the most publicity. We believe Stern is sincere when he says he simply is uncomfortable being the head of an organization whose general managers and scouts spend time in high school gyms. But now we're wondering if the league pumped up this issue primarily so it could be dropped at the last minute, as an alleged "concession."

It doesn't matter anymore. As NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said last night, "Time has just about run out to get a deal before July 1. Certainly to me it seems unlikely."

The pressure points are exclusively monetary. For example, the league wants to reduce the maximum length of player contracts from six or seven years (depending on the circumstances) to five or six years (the league's first proposal was three or four years). Among the things offered in exchange is a guarantee that the players' allotted share of basketball-related income will be no lower than 57%.

GIVING UP TOO MUCH

The players' position is straight-forward enough: We're giving up too much and getting back too little.

"The union is looking for something richer than the old deal," Granik said. "That's a place we don't see ourselves going."

There has been speculation union director Billy Hunter needs to be seen to be fighting. Thus, maybe Hunter wouldn't mind a brief lockout, to appease his hard-liners.

But once a lockout starts, it's a runaway train.

"We read that somehow we, the owners and the labour relations committee want a lockout -- I assure you that is not the case," Stern said. "We don't understand the rhetoric that has been coming out, and that has been repeated by you (the media). We would love for you to understand the facts here."

Normally Stern is too savvy to be that condescending. It revealed something: He's a little rattled by all this.

"If we do have a lockout, we will not go this far -- this offer will not be on the table again," Stern said.

So onward we go, into the Seinfeld Lockout. A lockout about nothing, but an economic timebomb nonetheless.

As Kramer would say, "Giddy-up."


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