Heisler Column: At Long Last, Crunch Time

By Mark Heisler

Talk about the matchup we waited our whole lives for …

Bryant Gumbel vs. Paul Allen!

What’s the chance of them fighting a steel cage death match?

Things look that bad — as things figured to at this point with the warring parties already out $330 million … soon to be $660 million when Jefferson Davis, er, David Stern cancels two more weeks.

The NBA trotted out Allen, the nation’s No. 23-ranked billionaire, now cautioning prudence after years of $100 million payrolls and $40 million luxury tax bills, to represent (but not speak for) for its hard-pressed owners.

Meanwhile, Gumbel, the itinerant anchor, took up the players’ cause and, mistaking the negotiations for a revolution, denounced the “infamously arrogant” Stern as a wannabe plantation owner.

Gumbel is, of course, even more infamously arrogant, so at least he knew whereof he spoke on that one.

So the NBA is in a bad place, indeed … or not.

We haven’t seen yet, but we will soon.

To date, it’s only what should have been expected with owners seeking a massive rollback, even bigger than the $180 million annual giveback — that would be $1.8 billion over the 10 years the NBA wants — the players have already given back.

Last week’s contentious break-off was exactly what should have been expected after Stern’s threat to cancel everything until Christmas if there was no breakthrough, and union director Billy Hunter noting a deal wasn’t likely after having bargained for two years without one.

So after the press built up the federal mediator into a Ghandi-like spiritual leader, the warring nations said they didn’t care who George Cohen was, declaring yet another impasse … despite having narrowed the difference on the key revenue split to 52.5 (players) vs. 50 percent (owners).

So now they’re ‘hopelessly’ deadlocked … 2.5 percent (which equals $100 million) apart?

If the press covers this as if it was the first 44 minutes of an NBA game, this is actually what labor talks look like — right up until they make the deal.

So for the few left who said the NBA would play by Dec. 1 … we’re still alive!

It’s not only possible to be optimistic, it’s the way to bet, at least, according to me.

Despite the gnashing of teeth, with heretofore gracious union president Derek Fisher telling the press “You have been lied to,” it’s now about whether the players get $2.1 billion of the projected $4 billion in revenues, or just $2 billion.

If both sides had to lose real money to show their dumbest, er, hardest cases that each needs the other and the other knows it, it just happened.

By now anyone with a personal fortune of $13.2 billion, like Allen, should understand the folly in risking hundreds of millions … or billions (about $1.3 billion if it lasts until Christmas) rather than splitting the difference.

One would hope they’re getting very near the end if the NBA unveiled Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, at last week’s meetings in New York.

Aside from showing how supposedly united the owners are, there may have been a darker message … showing how rich they are and how little they need the players or the NBA.

So the NBA just went from “We’re entitled to make a profit, unlike all other businessmen,” to “We’re the ones with day jobs as CEOs and can shut down any time we like, so sign here!”

Sick or not, Stern who missed last week’s apocalypse, obliging him to phone in his lies, er, advice, is definitely slick enough to do it.

When Clippers owner Donald Sterling said at a league meeting that he’d fire Stern if it was up to him, it actually came at Stern’s prompting, noticing Donald was stewing, realizing an outburst would scare owners back to David, as opposed to lining up behind Donald.

As for Gumbel’s charges, let’s just say it’s not a good idea to misspeak yourself in your all-out indictment, as when he said Stern’s “efforts [were] typical of a commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys.”

It’s true that Stern dislikes resistance, but that’s across the board, be it from owners, players, TV networks, and, of course, the press.

I’ve disagreed with enough of Stern’s initiatives myself — looking over referees’ shoulders, the dress code, etc., etc. — to have learned long ago to ask and duck at press conferences.

I have portrayed Stern as a benevolent despot whose super-lawyer, control-freak touches were aimed at removing the stigma that attached itself to the NBA in the post-Michael Jordan era.

I’ve always thought he got one big thing right, the 1984 labor deal that included a salary cap which has been refined into an interest-balancing, self-regulating mechanism that can be tweaked when imbalances arise.

You’ll notice the old system is the one they’re still working on.

The owners threw their hard cap overboard weeks ago. Now if the two sides can just split their differences on the revenue split, luxury tax and mid-level exception, they can end this BS.

Of course, if they could screw it up to this point, they can screw it up some more.

If they don’t make a deal in two or three weeks, they’ll be dark through at least Dec. 15.

At that point, I think both sides would declare all-out war and go right to the drop-dead date.

Everyone knows when that is, early January, when everyone gets back after the holidays with just enough time to play 50 games, as in 1999.

But even these bozos should be able to find a way to end this in the next two or three weeks.

If not, there goes another optimist.

Welcome to crunch time, at last.

Mark Heisler is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops. His columns appear each Monday.



  1. Gary says


    Hey, you might know who I’m talking about w/ the local team here in LA. Said the elephant in the room is that a group of owners are really taking a hard line and are completely fine with not playing at all this season or closing up shop altogether. Grumblings of contraction has scared the s*** out of Stern & co. Another group of owners is ready to do deal yesterday (Big Markets). Love your optimism, but I just don’t see a resolution anytime soon.

  2. Jacob says

    Here is the problem as I see it. For decades these huge players salaries were made possible by even bigger profits by owners in their other endeavors. Rather than writing a huge check to the IRS the owners spend some of that money on a nice little hobby, something that they enjoy, can build upon, and leave a legacy.

    OK great, but what has changed? A bunch of things I am sure, but the most important is the non-NBA related income. Its not there anymore, at least not in the amounts needed to offset the huge NBA losses. What was a nice little hobby write off has become a money pit. I can’t blame the owners for wanting to change the economic model as long as they do it in a responsible way, and they have. They told the players TWO YEARS ago they were going to do this. Two years is a lot longer than you would get in any other industry. I keep reading things from the players and many journalists saying “now all the sudden the owners want to make money.” All the sudden? The owners told them two years ago that the gravy train was over.

    The sad part is that the players have been on this gravy train for so long that they don’t realize they are on a gravy train. They really think it is their money and they are being asked to give it back. That line of thinking is so far out of touch with reality it is scary.

  3. Ken says

    You wrote:”Now if the two sides can just split their differences on the revenue split, luxury tax and mid-level exception, they can end this BS.” Obviously, the one thing that you can be sure that a mediator does is a find an acceptable way to propose splitting the difference – something that neither side can do without changing the midpoint (note Stern’s constant refrain that they never offered 50, only 47, in order to change the midpoint).

    From the reactions after the final session, clearly the owners (esp Allen) were the ones who said no to the mid-point (51.25). More importantly, the owners said no to the players’ “50 if low revenue, 53 if high revenue” proposal, which clearly says that the owners want 50 while expecting high revenue.

    Again, the only conclusion is that the owners want 50 but they really expect high revenue.

  4. FrankVogelisGOD says

    You duped me with your optimism once, but I will not be fooled twice. The more that comes out of these negotiations the clearer it becomes that the owners have no interest in playing games this season. They’ve always wanted to miss games and they will have no problem cancelling the whole season if the players don’t give in.


  1. […] Mark Heisler: Crunch time in the NBA lockout has arrived – a big piece, "When Clippers owner Donald Sterling said at a meeting of the League that fire star, if it after him, he was made encouraging the Stern noticed Donald was done braising, an epidemic would be reluctant to owners to meet behind David Donald. " […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>