NBA belongs to superstars, not Stern

Kobe Bryant and other NBA superstars are worth more to the NBA than vice versa

The cancellation of the NBA preseason disappoints only the owners who would profiteer from charging top dollar in second-tier arenas, and the players, who, contrary to the charge often leveled at them, love the game.

For most fans and media types, the news qualifies as an act of mercy. The season was way too long, anyway, and long stretches of it entirely superfluous. That’s not to say, however, you shouldn’t have someone to cheer for.

Go, Kobe, go!

Bring your talents to Italy, yo!

Call a presser and tell the world: “Virtus Bologna, here I come!”

Just because David J. Stern’s name is on Spalding’s regulation ball doesn’t mean it’s his. It’s Kobe’s ball. And, yes, as much as I hate to admit it, LeBron’s. And Dwyane Wade’s, too. And so on.

By going to Italy, Bryant would be sending a message both symbolic and substantive: I been carrying your sorry asses long enough, I don’t need you.

What’s more, he would finally be standing up for that long and shamelessly exploited class of athlete, the NBA Superstar.

No. I’m serious. Last week, Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Lakers owner Jerry Buss has said privately that Kobe is worth $70 million a year. That’s $45 million more than Bryant’s salary. Just the same, I’d say Buss is lowballing the figure.

The Lakers have been selling out the Staples Center since 2000, when Bryant was just 21, in his second season as an All-Star. Then again, attendance is chump change. This was to be the final year of the Lakers' deal with FOX before the inaugural season with Time Warner Cable, a contract whose worth is reliably estimated at $3 billion for 20 years. That’s an average annual stipend of $150 million. And that alone is enough to make Kobe Bryant an incredible bargain. Jerry Buss and his heirs will be making money off Bryant long after he retires.

It was disgraceful to allow peons on the Lakers’ basketball side to be fired early on in the lockout. Other than that, I have nothing but admiration for Buss’ tenure as an owner. For all the criticism of his profligacies, he understands value. Buss is a far better businessman than his counterparts (these new generation hard-liners like Robert Sarver of the Suns or the guy in Cleveland who wouldn’t shut up).

Thirty years ago, Buss “gave” Magic Johnson a 25-year, $25 million contract extension. It was said to be irresponsible. It was reckless. It would be the end of the game.

It was a bargain.

In fact, it was such a good deal Buss gave Johnson a piece of his team just to make it seem right. Buss and the NBA are still finding new ways to monetize Magic. That’s fine. Just understand that the elite stars have been carrying David Stern’s league, not for years, but for generations.

Perhaps “carrying” isn’t the right word. It’s more like subsidizing. In that same Yahoo piece, Dwyane Wade told Wojnarowski that he would command $50 million on the open market. It might not have been the politically correct remark. But it was correct, just the same.

At some level, what afflicts the NBA is the same problem that faces other billion-dollar leagues: MLB, NFL, or the SEC. This is just another intramural squabble between big-market and small-market teams, unable or unwilling to figure out an equitable or acceptable way to whack up revenues. Owners and athletic directors tend to love the glory but (unlike Buss) shirk the risk associated with doing business. The difference is, the very best players in the NBA routinely take less than they’re worth. Basically, the NBA has a de facto Superstar Subsidy.

Consider Michael Jordan. Through his first 11 pro seasons, he averaged — averaged — $2.37 million a year. During this time, he won eight scoring titles, four MVPs, four championships and transformed the NBA briefly, albeit briefly, into America’s premier sport. For less than $29 million, the league got a pretty good deal, no? How about the Bulls? How’d that work out for them?

And it didn’t end with Jordan, who played the last two years of his career for about $2 million (a failed basketball experiment, yes, but a remarkably profitable one for the league and the Washington Wizards). These days, everybody loves to hate on LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Me? I’d wait in line to write more horrible stuff about them.

Still, each member of the Big Three — James, Wade and Chris Bosh — took considerably less than his market value to play for the Heat. Don’t tell me about endorsement money, either. Tell me the last time one of David Stern’s owners left money on the table.

But back to Bryant. This is his second lockout, which is to say the second such move by a group of men who can’t play by the rules they themselves made. (Hey, if an owner wants to pay, say, Joe Johnson as if he were a superstar, that’s his problem.) The first one ended on Jan. 6, 1999, in a Fifth Avenue office building. A stone-faced Bryant made a conspicuously solo exit before the lobby became mobbed with the players and reporters.

“He came down first and he was gone, left without stopping to talk,” recalls esteemed New York Times columnist Harvey Araton. “He was clearly not happy with the deal based on what the players had accepted — for the obvious reason of how it would affect his next contract.”

Bryant, then headed into his third season, had figured to make a huge score on the open market. But limitations to the “Larry Bird Rule” would prevent him from ever coming close.

The Staples Center would open the following season — coinciding with the first of Bryant’s five championships (to go with his two scoring titles plus the MVP award) — and remain in a state of perennial sellout. Good for Jerry Buss (who would again show his business acumen in choosing Bryant over Shaquille O’Neal). It was another great deal for the Lakers, another great deal for the NBA.

I mean, what’s Kobe worth to the league in, say, China alone?

Now I’m not telling you to feel bad for the guy, not at all. Just the same, when you listen to the commissioner and these hard-line owners cry poverty, recognize that Bryant has been paid less than market value his entire career.

Yes, playing in Bologna would pay him a fraction of his Lakers salary. And, yes, it’s all about the marketing. But at this point, shouldn’t Kobe Bryant be working on his brand, not David J. Stern’s?

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