As the NBA moves closer to the cancellation of more games and more lost momentum from its spectacular 2010-11 campaign, it is time for me to move beyond my criticism of Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter, the leaders of the players association.
I’m on their side. I want to help them frame a public message that exposes the hypocrisy of the owners who have locked the players out.
In this protracted labor dispute, a group of largely conservative, right-wing billionaires are betraying the values and principles they allegedly hold dear: fix your own problems, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, quit looking for handouts.
The NBA is a $3-billion industry. It has global reach. The lack of discipline, the free-spending and irresponsible behavior of ownership, are the only reasonable justifications for 22 teams allegedly losing a combined $300 million. The economy is bad. The incompetence of NBA ownership is worse.
Rather than accept and deal with their culpability for its financial mess and look within for solutions — as its conservative philosophy dictates — NBA ownership has simply proposed sticking its hands in the players’ pockets for a seven-percent/$400-million kickback/bailout.
I’m surprised the Tea Party isn’t occupying NBA headquarters.
I’m equally shocked the NBA Players Association — a group comprised largely of self-made, up-from-poverty, bootstrap young men — hasn’t called the owners out for their blatant hypocrisy.
So on Tuesday, I reached out to the NBA’s highest-profile, most-thoughtful liberal, a man with an impeccable reputation for integrity and class, a man who desperately needs to get involved in this labor dispute before irreparable damage is done to a league that is on the cusp of a transcendent renaissance.
“I agree with you,” Phoenix Suns point guard and two-time MVP Steve Nash told me during our private phone conversation. “I’m not so one-sided that I don’t think there are ills within (the NBA business) model. But the majority of the things preventing this model from working are the owners policing themselves and not signing as many bad (player) contracts.
“A good example of that fact is I’m sure New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and some others are probably dying to play,” Nash continued. “They’re making money. But when the other owners came to them and said, ‘Well, we really need to share revenue,’ they said, ‘No, let’s get it from the players first. Let the players pay for this — and at all cost — before we have to share revenue.’ That’s a trend that aligns with what you’re saying and supports it.”
I next reached out to Nash’s Phoenix teammate Grant Hill.
“It would be disappointing if we all didn’t take responsibility for our role in this divide,” Hill told me. “I would hope that the owners would be willing to do as much as they’re asking the players. I would hope that we would all look within first for any solutions. I haven’t been at the negotiations, so I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but from my perspective, looking at the concessions the players have made, we have certainly looked within. I hope the owners are doing the same.”
Let me clarify this story right here. I am no one’s mouthpiece. I did not contact Nash and Hill at the behest of Hunter and Fisher, or anyone else. Hunter and Fisher have not responded to my requests for an interview. Neither Nash nor Hill — nor their representatives — reached out to me to write this story. I wanted to talk to them.
I love the NBA. I absolutely loved last season. I’m distraught and heartbroken that the two sides — owners and players — may ruin what LeBron, Dirk, D-Wade, Rose, Kobe, Durant and Blake Griffin gave us last season. I don’t believe the public truly understands what NBA ownership is trying to pull off. By demanding a seven-percent/$400-million bailout/kickback, the owners are mirroring the same scam Wall Street bankers pulled on Main Street America.
I called Nash and Hill because I believed they would understand. They’re mature, intelligent, reasonable, measured, professional, unimpeachable and widely respected. They’ve earned $100-plus million during their careers, basked in basketball’s spotlight for nearly two decades and remain relatively self-aware.
Their voices need to be heard. The NBA’s elite, credible players have been too silent in explaining to the public the shakedown NBA ownership is attempting.
“There could be some truth to that,” Nash said when I asked if the big-name stars have made a mistake in not speaking out. “It’s a tough situation. There are people in the players union who are very committed, capable people in our union have taken the reins. I didn’t foresee that I would be needed. And with respect to (our union leaders), I’m willing to get more involved. And if in hindsight I should take some blame for (not being involved), I’m not opposed to that. Maybe it was shortsighted for me not to get more involved. At the same time, I think it would be (a mistake for me to say) if I were involved personally, it would change anything. But who knows, maybe if collectively more guys were involved, it would be better. But I’m not sure it was ever set up for that. In some ways too many cooks in the kitchen can make things more difficult. We’ve seen that at times during this situation.”
Hill echoed Nash’s sentiment: “Yes, in hindsight maybe it probably was a mistake (to be uninvolved). I don’t want to give myself too much credit if I do get involved. I think at this point every player wishes he was at the negotiating table.”
I wish I was at the table. Someone who just cares about professional basketball — the NBA — and not about business needs to be at the table. The owners and the union are killing the game at the absolute wrong time. Just like the NFL couldn’t afford to steal one of Tom Brady’s or Peyton Manning’s or Drew Brees’ or Aaron Rodgers’ years on top, the NBA can’t let one of Nash’s, Dirk’s, Kobe’s, D-Wade’s, LeBron’s prime years slip away. No way. The NBA storylines are too compelling.
I blame the owners more than the players. The owners’ 50-50, basketball-related-income ultimatum is primarily what is stopping all negotiating progress. The ultimatum is ridiculous and unfair. The public can’t see the unfairness because the players are millionaires, and in these hard economic times, it’s hard to be sympathetic toward any millionaire. But the players’ willingness to drop from 57 percent BRI to 54 or even 53 percent is a great $200-million “head start” program to uplift the owners from their financial irresponsibility. Greed is the only reason the owners want 50-50. They want the players to pay for ownership irresponsibility.
“There are a lot of fans out there that just don’t want to hear it,” Nash said. “They don’t consider athletes businessmen. They don’t understand the (business) model. They don’t understand that we’re making 57 percent and actually giving back . . . to now go down to 50 percent in any business you would say that someone is taking your shirt. But a fan, if I was in their shoes, I would say, ‘Look you’re just playing ball. Why wouldn’t you go back to 50-50? That sounds fair to me.’
“So 50-50, unfortunately, is a number that’s being thrown around,” Nash continued, “and it sounds bad to the common fan that a player would say no to that, not knowing that in a business negotiation to give up seven percent is enormous. And two, like for example, if Lil Wayne comes to U.S. Airways Center, he’s taking home 97 percent of that gate. . . . The talent in most industries get paid the majority of things.”
CBS wanted to pay Charlie Sheen $20 million for “Two and a Half Men.” Sheen’s reputation is far more compromised and unseemly than LeBron James’ or even Kobe Bryant’s. James and Bryant work harder at basketball than Sheen does at acting.
“What I don’t like is people misconstruing us standing up for ourselves as whining,” Nash said. “I’m not whining. I’m a businessman, like it or not, standing up for what I believe is fair and the principles I believe in and make this model viable. It’s a business situation. A fan could say, ‘Well, you’re turning your back on the fans of the game.’ And you know what? We take some responsibility for that. But the owners take a great, great responsibility in that. . .
“They want us to go out there and be these angelic sports heroes, and then when we get in a negotiation, they’re going to make us look bad.”
Nash answered pretty much all of my questions. He was critical of Suns owner Robert Sarver, but the point guard said he was unsure if Sarver was a negotiating hardliner because he wants to sell the Suns. Nash declined to discuss Bryant Gumbel’s controversial, plantation-overseer comments about commissioner David Stern.
Nash said that he has spoken to NBPA executive director Billy Hunter. Nash said he appreciates the difficult job Fisher has undertaken as player president. Nash described the rank-and-file union members as “uncharacteristically” unified.
“Guys want to play,” he said. “But they feel we are being taken advantage of.”
Do you think the union will hold together in November when the players start missing paychecks, I asked Nash.
“I do. I do,” he said. “My hope is we’re really going to think outside the box and find some common ground, even some incentive-based situation where every side wins. Not just get stuck on a number. . .
“If more guys come into (the negotiation), it would have to be very strategic for it to be successful,” Nash added. “It’s not just showing up there with a catalogue of superstars. It’s about having a thought-out plan as to how our voices can be most efficient and effective. At this point, there is bad blood. We cannot let this become a situation where both sides are trying to save face. We can’t lose two more months because everyone is stubborn. We have to try to find a way for both sides to put away the differences and try to negotiate — I don’t know — in the terms we always seem to use, ‘good faith.’ That’s tricky.”
I ended my conversation with Nash by circling back to my original hypothesis — the hypocrisy of right-wing billionaires fixing their problems by sticking their hands in the pockets of bootstrap millionaires.
“I can see your point. I can relate to what you’re saying,” he said. “What I don’t think we need is to create a bigger divide by throwing negative energy at each other. This has been a very ugly negotiation. I don’t want us to continue to find ways to paint them in a bad light. I don’t want to make it my self-fulfilling prophecy, pointing a finger at them. We’re both upset. Both trying to find a deal that favors us. I definitely see your point. But I don’t want to spend my time or energy or add to the volatility and stick a knife in them anymore. I want us to think outside the box and look at this as a partnership and how can we both be happy.”