NEW YORK — “Michael Jordan is a con man.”
Those words were spoken by Jeff Van Gundy, then the coach of the New York Knicks, on a Chicago radio station in January of 1997 when the Bulls and the Knicks were bitter rivals whose epic postseason clashes almost always managed to go Chicago’s way.
Van Gundy meant it in a complimentary way, saying Jordan was brilliantly ruthless for the way he befriended opposing players off the court and then demolished them on the court. But Jordan didn’t take it that way. He told Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom “F*&% him — and you can quote me,” and then went out and dropped 51 on the Knicks whilst pointing fingers and screaming more curses at Van Gundy on the sideline.
Jordan proved a point that night — don’t mess with the best.
But Van Gundy had a point, too.
Jordan would do anything to gain a competitive advantage, and folks were downright scared of him when he was fired up. Few ever incurred the wrath of Jordan quite like Van Gundy did on that cold winter night nearly 15 years ago, and no one ever dared to call him a “con man” again.
Why does this matter today?
Because Jordan has come out of the shadows again after being silent throughout the majority of the NBA’s labor dispute, and he is now being portrayed in the New York Times as the leader of a faction of 10 to 14 hard-line owners who would rather sit out an entire season than give the players a single penny more than a 50-50 split when collective bargaining negotiations resume at 4 p.m. EDT this afternoon at a midtown Manhattan hotel.
This is the same Michael Jordan, mind you, who got up in Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s face at a negotiating session during the 1998-99 lockout and told the octogenarian owner that if he couldn’t make a profit, then he should go and sell his team.
Jordan is on the other side of the table now, and it is beyond a little bit suspicious that he is now suddenly being portrayed as the leader of a ruthless ownership faction that is dictating the negotiating strategy of commissioner David Stern. These owners, we are being asked to believe, would rather shut down their sport at the height of its global growth spurt than meet somewhere in the middle on the split of revenues.
I am calling BS on them. This is a con, and all it is meant to do is put pressure on union negotiators to take the league’s “best and final offer” (actually, those words have yet to come out of Stern’s mouth) when that type of offer is put on the table today (or tomorrow, or Monday) with federal mediator George Cohen overseeing the proceedings.
“Don’t mess with Michael,” the players are being indirectly warned, both through the story in the Times and in Brian Mahoney’s freshest AP dispatch, which says Jordan is such a hardliner that he opposed ownership’s recent move from 47 percent of BRI for the players to 50.
The last time the sides were in a room together, Stern infuriated the players so much by offering a 50-50 split when they had been led to believe he would move northward that they got up and stormed out of the room, a tactic Billy Hunter defended two days ago in the hours before the hysteria over involuntary decertification began.
If the players had stayed in the room two Fridays ago at the Waldorf-Astoria, they may have coaxed the number “51” out of Stern, and the deal would have been done by now. Instead, we have had eight days of posturing, rhetoric and doomsday scenarios preparing everyone for the NBA’s nuclear winter.
Again, I call BS.
About 95 percent of the contested issues have been resolved, and there is going to have to be some give and take on the remainder in order to get this mess to the finish line so both sides can emerge from the room holding their noses and saying “We have a deal.”
Here are those issues, and where I see the settlement points:
The split of BRI: At this point, it probably can’t be a hard number. It needs to be a sliding number that gives a larger share to the players if revenue growth exceeds expectations. It can be a band ranging from 50 percent to 52 percent, which allows both sides to claim they walked away getting the number they wanted.
Use of the mid-level exception for teams over the luxury tax threshold: Right now, the owners want taxpayers to be excluded from being able to use the $5 million exception. The players are resisting, saying they want free agents to have a full complement of 30 teams with the capability to bid for a player’s services. The compromise is to create a new, distinct mid-level exception for teams over the tax, limiting them to offering a contract with a maximum starting salary of $3-4 million. Call it the mini-midlevel. It’d give both sides a piece of what they are looking for.
The prohibition on taxpaying teams from executing sign-and-trade deals: This is the owners’ best bargaining chip, because it costs them nothing to take it off the table and claim they made another “give.” Because in the end, if a high-spending team wants to use this mechanism to increase its payroll and thereby be penalized under the more restrictive luxury tax rates, those tax funds will end up being redistributed to the league’s poorer teams. It’s a “give” that ends up giving back to the Michael Jordans of the NBA ownership world, and it allows Stern to keep his BRI settlement number closer to 50 than to 52.
So there are your settlement points, folks, and the time to meet in the middle is now.
This con game has gone on long enough. It is, as Ken Berger of CBSSports has called it, an unnerving display of asshattery.
What, you may ask, is asshattery?
From the urban dictionary: “Doing, saying, or participating in anything that makes oneself an asshat (a person who has their head so far up their OWN ass that they are wearing their ass as a hat).
Hat’s off, fellas. Please.