NBA: Greed kills

Sunday, November 29, 1998

It is hard to feel much sympathy for the International Brotherhood of Basketball Players. Among the reasons they are weathering the NBA lockout so well is that many of them are being subsidized by sneaker companies synonymous with the exploitation of workers.

Michael Jordan is a great union man until he is asked to explain his association with the sneaker sweatshops of Southeast Asia. Then, the greatest athlete of his generation reveals all the backbone of a snake. The appropriate word here is "hypocrisy."

It is hard to feel much sympathy for the owners. They have bid up the price of pituitary prodigies to the point of diminishing profits. They seek a labor agreement which will deliver "cost certainty" because they are unable to contain their own profligacy. These are rich, accomplished men who would have us believe they are incapable of running a $2 billion business without a set of artificial restraints on the marketplace. The appropriate word here is "harrumph."

Can't take sides

It was once possible to take sides about the division of spoils in the world of sports. Not so long ago, professional athletes were paid a comparative pittance out of the enormous revenues they generated. Forced to negotiate with one team for as long as that team chose to retain that right, their real value was systematically depressed. Yet the bargaining pendulum has swung so far in the last quarter-century that the only victims remaining are the spectators. Free agency has given rise to staggering escalation in ticket prices, a ceaseless demand for ever-more extravagant arenas and a public increasingly hostile to having its pockets picked.

After 151 days of the NBA lockout, few cases of dribbling deprivation have been reported. The college game continues in all its noisy splendor, and Joe Fan seems to be feeling no separation anxiety from the pros.

If not for Dennis Rodman's annulled marriage and David Stern's absurd beard, it might have been possible to survive the entire non-season oblivious to the posturing players and obfuscating owners. Spared the sycophantic interrogations of Ahmad Rashad, the whole deal was no worse than a wash.

Yes, Michael Jordan is a national treasure, but he can only top himself so many times. When he's through, there isn't a player on the scene who simply must be seen. (Except, perhaps, by a probation officer.)

The NBA is a league long on hype and short on substance, much like a Bruce Willis film festival or a new menu item at McDonald's. This is the legacy of the 24-second clock, which forces a frenetic style of play unsuitable to careful study or coordinated offense. Most NBA games are forgotten as fast as they are played.

Baseball's differrent<

Baseball's work stoppages are more wrenching. While pro basketball must compete for its share of the sports audience, baseball has the summer to itself. Its constituency is older, but more discerning. The typical NBA fan has the attention span of a three-year-old. The typical baseball fan has the memory of an elephant.

Embittered baseball fans were slow to return to the ballpark following the disastrous 1994 strike, but eventually were drawn back by their deep affection for the game and the kind of drama no other sport can duplicate. If the warring NBA factions are banking on a baseball-like recovery, they may have miscalculated.

Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons star who later ran the Toronto Raptors, credits the game's growth to a sense of partnership between the owners and players. That point of view is almost as antiquated now as the two-handed set shot.

"We were trying to take the NBA from a '70s drug-infested league to a game that was sellable on Wall Street," Thomas told the Bloomberg news service. "We wanted to globalize the sport . . . Right now, you have to protect the owners from themselves, so they don't hurt you."

It is hard to feel much sympathy for either side. They had a good thing going before they got greedy.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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