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Why the NBA Lockout Is Different from Every Sports Work Stoppage Ever

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Why the NBA Lockout Is Different from Every Sports Work Stoppage Ever
Harry How/Getty Images

By now, it’s clear that the NBA’s players and owners are separated by a canyon of ideas, logic and rhetoric. 

Many of the NBA’s 16 new owners since the lockout of 1998-99 have yet to see return on investment. 

On the other hand, the players cannot accept financial regression when television contracts have ballooned and arena revenues continue to climb. 

The grimaces on David Stern’s and Derek Fisher’s faces are enough to see that they’re in it for the long haul.

But this is not your average lockout.  For the first time since major league baseball in the 1970s, the players control their destiny.  The billionaire owners will wind up having to concede to millionaire players, and only some serious face-saving, 11th-hour negotiations will prevent the owners from looking completely silly in the end.

Don’t believe me?  You see, the NBA players will play anyway.  They’re playing right now; it’s just not on anywhere.  Basketball players play. 

I know, I’m one of them (rec-league, not the Association).  It’s impossible to love the game and not be playing it somewhere. 

NBA players are like NASCAR drivers that way—you might see Jimmie Johnson on an open-wheel sprint car track mid-week prior to a weekend race.  And you only get to the NBA by loving the game.

In this way, NBA players are vastly different from their NFL counterparts.  They are not tweeting about appreciating the rest, getting arrested three times (not yet anyway), Facebooking a fake retirement or organizing half-hearted informal team workouts. 

NFL-ers need equipment, a playbook and a stadium to get back on the field.  They can’t do it alone.  LeBron James just needs a court, a ball and nine other guys to have a game worth watching. 

Now imagine if the nine other guys were starting NBA players and the court was a sold-out arena China or Spain.  Because if it’s November and the lockout is dragging on, that’s going to happen. 

Imagine further that the 10 players added 50 more willing players and that among them were four or five superstars.  Imagine that the 60 players then formed makeshift teams, and there was some (contrived or real) bad blood between the teams, who played round-robin style games before sold-out crowds. 

I would watch that from Charles Barkley’s iPhone on my grandma’s dial-up. 

Maybe that sounds like a stretch.  Maybe there’s no money in it, and the players have bills to pay.  But the basketball universe has become the basketball universe, and there are slam-hungry crowds in developing nations nobody knows about yet. 

There are underprivileged kids who’ve been rocking Jordan jerseys since he wore gold chains. 

Some of those kids grew up to have money, and some of those kids grew up to have more money, and you can’t tell me there aren’t throngs of fans who’ve been fed the NBA superstar mantra for decades who aren’t willing to pony up. 

That could be a pipe dream for the players, or it could be a reality.  Pau Gasol has already mentioned playing in Spain or China next year and Kobe Bryant has contacted fellow players to feel out a Chinese tour. 

That’s just on one team.  NBA players showed the capacity to unify last year when certain talents were taken to South Beach.  The thought of them unifying to take their talents overseas has to take the starch right out of some billionaire collars. 

Contrast this with the owners’ need for a firm cap and a re-adjustment of the revenue share with players, and you can see why this lockout is different from any other. 

Lockouts hinge on 11th-hour negotiating, as is happening right now between players and owners in the NFL. 

Only in the NBA, the 11th hour could arrive with the owners wondering where all the players have gone.

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