NBA's Party Pooper: An Open Letter to David Stern

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst ISeptember 28, 2011

Dear Mr. Stern,

As the NBA’s glacial labor impasse continues, my disdain and impatience grows.

You turned 69 last week, but I gathered from Associated Press and ESPN articles that you did not celebrate much. The second lockout in your career—forcing another round of game cancellations—should have stained and tainted the proceedings. Who would dare champion an anniversary while his titanic association’s upcoming season faces a slow demise, inching closer to an apocalyptic event one stalemate session at a time?

There was no reason to crack the bubbly, no justification for beaming as most celebrants do.

Instead, you and the other figureheads embroiled in this work stoppage emerged Thursday with frowns, scowls and empty eyes. NBAPA chief Billy Hunter looked as if someone had socked him with a tire iron and then thrown a sandbag on his smashed face. Derek Fisher, who tends to exude stoicism and thoughtfulness, offered blank stares and more uncertainty.

The following day, the league officially wiped out 43 preseason games and the scheduled start of training camps. Soon, the NBA will slash the remaining October contests and leave the slated Nov. 1 regular season commencement in jeopardy.

The real, painful carnage will hit fans hard in the next few weeks, and I am writing this letter to deliver an unmistakable message: it’s your fault.

Yes, Mr. Commissioner, Rashard Lewis never earned his six-year, $110 million albatross contract. Countless bench warmers and scrubs have abused the mid-level exception and soured its luster as a roster-improvement tool. More than a few professional basketball players rank as overpaid, underachievers. To those indisputable facts, I say, “So what?”

No one forced the Orlando Magic’s management team, which included GM Otis Smith, to pay Lewis such a ridiculous sum. No one on Lewis’ side used a firearm to turn negotiations into a hostage or ransom situation.

The luxury tax has not deterred big spending or curtailed mammoth payrolls as some owners expected. Even that legitimate gripe now merits a shrug.

This mess is your fault. Do not forget that.

Does every NFL player make what his production says he should? Does that phenomenon happen in the MLB, NHL or any soccer league? Humans have been overpaying certain humans for services since the invention of currency. It happens. Get over it.

You deserve the blame here because the NBA is your operation. The owners may fund your generous salary, but your first responsibility is to me.

I keep the sport’s popularity humming by talking it up at every opportunity. I buy the exorbitant items at my favorite teams’ stadium stores. I watch every minute of every game involving those choice squads. I spend many Friday nights in front of my computer—using my League Pass Broadband subscription to browse that evening’s slate—instead of meeting up with friends for drinks.

Thousands, maybe millions of casual supporters adopt the NBA as a nifty second, third or fourth sport to watch when football season ends. In a state brimming with residents who worship pigskin as a religion, I’m the Texan who would rather watch the Charlotte Bobcats host the L.A. Clippers than the Super Bowl.

A shortened or cancelled campaign might not torment the followers who start watching on Christmas Day. The prospect kills me.

A few friends love the game as much as I do and suffer when considering a fall and spring sans LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. My other amigos will survive. Good for them.

Everything about the NBA arrests me—from the glitzy, high-dollar starting introductions, to pinpoint bounce passes, to gorgeous pick-and-rolls, to precise defensive rotations, to ear-splitting crowd eruptions after momentous baskets.

I matter. Think of the thousands of others who also put basketball first. We matter. We demand a resolution. Stop this madness. End the greed mongering.

Most sports spectators consider themselves anti-player because the visible athletes pocket so much money per year. Yet, if they were more informed they would rue the owners more than the employees. The bosses may qualify as invisible by comparison, but they cannot hide from me.

I see you, Robert Sarver. I see you, Dan Gilbert. Not even a wall of cowardice can shelter the hard-line owners now.

When this circus began, the players needed to make substantial concessions to better meet this country’s disturbing economic reality. It appears they have done so.

Your turn.

Both sides prepared for this standoff, but yours, Mr. Stern, is the one ready to torpedo progress and the entire season just to score a bloodbath.

A deal that screws the players for 10 years may feel like a win to a shrewd businessman with a history of lopsided agreements or contracts on his curriculum vitae.

Your job is to put the league’s health and sustainability above all else.

There is nothing sustainable or healthy about a lost campaign.

Ted Leonsis and other bosses who also manage NHL franchises want to Xerox that sport’s most recent CBA and apply it to basketball. You should have manned up long ago and instructed them to stick a puck where the sun doesn’t shine.

That marginal league should never, ever be used in the same sentence as the NBA when discussing a governing document. That statement comes from a former hockey nut that idolized Wayne Gretzky as a child.

Such thinking is dangerous and absurd. Quick pop quiz: If I picked 10 residents at random walking down a crowded New York City street, or better yet sauntering down a boulevard in Wyoming, would more of them know Sidney Crosby or James?

Thought so.

The two leagues’ TV revenues are farther apart than Barack Obama and the Republican Congress. Hockey did retain most of its fantastic, loyal fans, but it is no model for basketball to emulate.

Stop the posturing and hard-line proposal denials and engage the other side in a good-faith negotiation. Drop the nonsense lawsuit against the players and answer theirs, which has some merit.

I offered 10 suggestions for compromise in a previous column.

Consider my abbreviated, updated version: split basketball-related income 50-50, enforce a harder cap with one or two exceptions intact and set the salary ceiling at $72 million. Keep guaranteed contracts but allow an amnesty clause, so that teams and frustrated players can pursue fresh starts with more ease. Keep the roster minimum at 13. Set reasonable limits on how often a front office can use those available tools.

Something tells me—even without wonderful inside connections a la CBS Sports’ Ken Berger or Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski—the players would take that deal.

Hell, they might even accept a 51-49 BRI split in the owners’ favor.

Stop dallying. Start talking. Prove that a parallel revenue sharing plan—which would solve one of the largest competitive issues—is not an imaginary action item.

This is your fault. You should know how this works.

When the Miami Heat floundered in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, James absorbed the brunt of the criticism, even though four other teammates participated in those four endgame failures. The top dog, the head honcho, the star attraction draws much of the praise after victories and scorn after pratfalls.

When anguished voters gripe about this country’s supposed wrong turn, where does the finger pointing start: with the legislative body that creates laws or with the omnipresent, polarizing commander in chief that seems to invade the broadcast networks once a week for a speech? Welcome back to a world James and Obama know all too well.

You bathed in the jocosity of a golden era that featured the Showtime Lakers, Larry Bird’s Celtics and Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

If you get credit for overseeing the sport’s meteoric rise, you get the blame for allowing this to happen. Twice.

Shame on you, David.

There is too much at stake to risk the season just to get an overhauled agreement that defeats the players by TKO. Nothing will make that catastrophe worthwhile.

You surrendered control of your association. The time has come to get it back.

If I crafted a letter to the players, I would implore the union’s leaders to continue denouncing decertification, a nuclear tactic with lethal consequences. Do not label me as pro-player or pro-owner. I am, instead, pro-basketball. As in, I would love to see some on this continent in November.

I expect you to make that happen. Do you want to become the first ever sports commissioner to lose regular-season contests twice in his tenure? A lopsided deal at the expense of 82 jousts will make 30 billionaires happy for 10 years. I am not even sure some of them covet a hard cap as much as they say. The fallout of missed games will follow you forever.

It will stay with you like a terminal, incurable disease. It will erase all the goodwill and good fortune you chaperoned. That all goes away if the 2011-2012 slate heads for the exits.

Oh, and happy belated birthday. Give yourself the gift of a ratified CBA soon. I would gladly help you unwrap that package.

Save the season. Save this tremendous league from capsizing. Save me from Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays with just football. Save these owners from themselves. Most of all, Mr. Stern, save your legacy.


Robert Kleeman

An agitated, die-hard fan sick of this baloney/bologna


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