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Bob Ryan

Players out of their league

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / November 4, 2011

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As the great Oliver Hardy would say, this NBA lockout is “a fine kettle of fish.’’

Or was it Laurel? Anyway, I was trying to find a way to get into this without resorting to the more natural expedient of calling the principals nasty names with naughty-word prefaces.

Not so very long ago, I adopted a public wake-me-when-it’s-over posture, but what should have been Opening Day came and went without a game, and I shouldn’t be surprised that I spent Tuesday feeling sorry for myself. That’s what happens when you have a 42-year professional and emotional investment in a sport that always seems to be fighting for full respectability.

It is very annoying for those of us who still love the sport of professional basketball to see what its custodians are currently doing to harm it. I wish it were as easy to decipher as the NFL madness. It was pretty easy to outfit the combatants in that one.

White Hats: Players

Black Hats: Owners

The NFL lockout was about very rich guys, all making a profit from their teams, wanting more. The players asked for nothing. Status quo was fine with them. There was a $9 billion pie, and there was ample opportunity for everyone to get a nice slice.

The NBA pie is worth “only’’ approximately $4 billion, and, unlike the NFL, not everyone makes a profit. That is clear. But just who is losing what remains unclear, because history teaches us that in these matters, professional sports teams make statements concerning their finances that, while perhaps not outright lies, are, shall we say, substantial stretches of the truth. Make that enormous, stupendous, astonishing stretches of the truth.

In general terms, I have always believed that you can trust most owners only as far as you can throw the building.

For whatever reason, when the two sides forged the last collective bargaining agreement, the owners were in a generous mood. They allotted the players 57 percent of what is known as BRI, or “Basketball-Related Income.’’

Now the owners are saying that hasn’t worked out so well, and they want a far larger share. They want many other things, too, and it all comes under the heading of “New Economic Model,’’ one that is substantially less favorable to the players.

Blah, blah, blah. That’s the way you feel, and that’s the way I feel. There is plenty of money to go around. Just get it done. It’s time to play ball.

But it is all a proper mess now. We have known all along the owners were far from united, with the bosses in outposts such as Los Angeles (Lakers, not Clippers), Chicago, New York, and Miami, among others, eager to make a deal and resume play, while bosses in so-called “small markets’’ (e.g. Portland, Milwaukee, Toronto) were quite willing to shut down the league for a year to get the deal they want, the premise being they will lose less money not playing at all than they would opening the doors under the current financial structure.

Maybe so. But I’m sure Players Association executive director Billy Hunter has pointed out to his constituency that even as these negotiations have been in progress, and with so many owners crying poverty, the 76ers, who are said not to have made a profit since 2001-02 and who have not won a playoff game since 2003, have been sold within the last two weeks to a group headed by leverage buyout mogul Joshua Harris for just under $300 million.

And if owning a team in a smaller market is so financially ruinous, why did a group led by Joe Lacob and Peter Guber pay an eye-popping $450 million for the Golden State Warriors - playoff participants once in the last 16 seasons - only last season?

These are not financially reckless people. They must know something.

On the players’ side, the new charge is that there is a rift between Mr. Hunter and Derek Fisher, president of the Players Association. Hunter is said to be under pressure from a cabal of prominent agents to hold the BRI line at 52 percent players, 48 percent owners. Fisher is said to be under pressure from various members of the rank and file to get real and get a deal done so everyone can get back to work. Both men have been forced to make public pledges of fidelity to The Cause.

It is still difficult for me to believe there will not be a rump season, a la 1998-99 - 40 games, 50 games, who knows? But there will be something.

Then, at least, we can get back to matters of actual competition. The NBA had accumulated a great deal of capital at the conclusion of the 2011 playoffs. We had a likable new champion in the Dallas Mavericks, a team of selfless St. Georges who had slain the mighty Miami dragon. We all wanted to see how Miami would react. (How about Dwyane Wade telling Coach K in a radio interview that his team had lost because they “played off hatred’’?)

We had fresh new story lines in Oklahoma City and Memphis. We wanted to see if the Bulls could find the additional piece to complete their puzzle. We wanted to see what the Knicks could accomplish, to see if the Spurs and Celtics had one more title run left, and to see whether a spirited team such as Denver could take that proverbial next step.

We wanted to see Blake Griffin.

There are two things we know about every sports labor/management squabble. The first is that the owners are never going to tell the whole truth about their finances. The second is that the players are never going to be satisfied.

Oh, yes, there’s another thing we know. We know that countless people on the periphery are hurt, losing money they will never get back, and all for really stupid reasons.

May we establish one thing? The players have already lost. So let’s get on with it.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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