Wednesday, January 06, 1999

In battle of NBA wits, it's 0-0 tie




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Reason says resolution. Sentiment says settlement. Every rational instinct — not the least of them survival — says the National Basketball Association will soon end its lockout and return to the rebound trail.

        So why does the outlook still seem so bleak? How has professional hoops reached the ridiculous point where a whole season could be wiped out over a small slice of a billion dollar pie? When did the letters NBA start to stand for No Brains Allowed?

PLAYERS VOTE
Latest update from Associated Press
        The league's players will assemble today in New York to vote on management's “final” offer. They are expected to reject it with the contempt Dikembe Mutombo might regard a post-up move from Muggsy Bogues.

        Management's “drop-dead” date looms Thursday. Barring some sudden breakthrough at the bargaining table, the NBA's Board of Governors — and, no, Jesse Ventura is not among them — is expected to authorize that the season be scrapped.

        Neither vote would necessarily mean the negotiations are beyond resuscitation — the National Hockey League defied its own deadline in 1995 — but the days left to get a deal done are clearly dwindling and the search for middle ground is strangely listless.

Maybe they'll both lose
        All those impoverished owners — defined here as those with a net worth less than Latvia's — have managed to solve their cash-flow crises thanks to the millions they have been advanced by NBC and TBS.

        All those destitute NBA players — defined here as those who have had to forego a fifth Mercedes — have yet to reach the point where belt-tightening is an inconvenience rather than a fashion statement.

        Frankly, you had to figure someone would have felt the pinch by now, what with all that debt to service and all those paternity suits to defend. But both sides have remained remarkably rigid, as if determined to take a charge.

        The players want 57 percent of the proceeds in the sixth year of a new deal; the owners are offering 54 percent. What makes splitting the difference so difficult is that the players made 57 percent last year and view anything less as a “give-back.” There is no more loathsome phrase in the labor vocabulary.

        If baseball's profound labor pains taught us anything, it should have been that it's a lot easier to negotiate when you're dealing in dollars rather than rhetoric. So long as the owners and players talk concept instead of cash, the stalemate will continue.

        In baseball, the players union remains undefeated. In football, the players always cave. Forecasting a winner in pro basketball's first full-scale labor dispute, however, calls for making a projection based on partial data.

It will end, but when?
        Union chief Billy Hunter concedes the perception of his constituents was “that they weren't up to the task; that if you put a gun to their heads, they would collapse.” It turns out Commissioner David Stern and his hawkish owners may have been counting too heavily on capitulation.

        Stern's strategy has been to divide the players into two classes. He has sought concessions that would make a meaningful difference to only a few elite players (maximum salaries; the Larry Bird exception, etc.), figuring the realistic rank-and-file would outvote the obstinate superstars. He has hinted at a plan that would put the marginal players out of work, retaining 100 or so of the top stars and filling out the rosters with cheaper fringe players. He has tried to reinforce the notion of job insecurity among those players who are least secure.

        Hunter had resisted putting the owners' last offer to a vote — presumably because it might reveal fissures in his membership — but his change of heart may signal only that he is confident of his head count. No seasoned labor leader takes a vote if he can not predict its outcome.

        Logic says both sides are still posturing, that their mutual need to make a deal will ultimately outweigh their common desire to crush their adversaries. Intuition tells you neither side is desperate enough yet.

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

Players vote today Latest update from Associated Press
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