Yesterday, NBA superstar LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year deal worth $153.3 million.
The 2010-11 NBA season is done and dusted, with basketball fans blessed by a truly great campaign that had more plot twists than the final season of ‘Lost’.
We saw the back-to-back defending champions, LA Lakers, bomb out in the second round of the playoffs; Miami promised a title from day one before they fell at the final hurdle; San Antonio turn back the clock all year before being ousted by Memphis in the opening round; Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki finally climb to the top of the mountain; and Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Zack Randolph and Amar’e Stoudemire all become legitimate superstars.
No one was predicting all that back in October.
When the finals ended earlier this month, the NBA was basking in the glow of a season for ages; everything was being viewed through rose-tinted shades.
Now, just two weeks later, millionaire players and billionaire owners are locked in bitter disputes over the future of the league. It’s a debate that is primarily about money, and lots of it at that.
Meanwhile, the majority of its fans are living in a nation that is struggling through historical debt and widespread unemployment.
As dark, stormy clouds continue to gather above the NBA, Commissioner David Stern is doing his very best to stay positive.
“There’s always time to make a deal,” Stern insisted when speaking to reporters before negotiations on Wednesday.
Stern could be right, but the simple fact is that when the clock strikes midnight on Friday, July 1, the NBA will officially enter into lockout.
Some hope still remains that a deal could be struck at the last minute, with a small group of negotiators scheduled to meet in Manhattan just hours before the deadline, searching for the ever-elusive breakthrough that has evaded both parties for the better part of the last 18 months.
Assuming that a last-minute agreement is not reached, it means the NBA will endure its first work stoppage since the infamous lockout in 1998 that saw the 1998-99 season shortened to just 50 games. By all accounts, both sides are still a long way from reaching an agreement, with neither party willing to compromise so that a deal could be signed.
At a time, when the AFL and its players have reached a stalemate in similar discussions, the happenings in the NBA could serve as a precursor – and warning – for our own league. It’s worth noting that at the beginning of the current negotiations, the National Basketball Players Association ruled out any strike action, just as the AFL players are doing now.
But as the stalemate continued, it didn’t take long for NBA players to take a more hard-line approach.
So, what exactly are both parties holding out for?
The owners’ proposal calls for the introduction of a ‘Flex Cap’ of US$62 million – a raise from the current US$58 million – reductions in the maximum length of player contracts, lower rookie contracts, a 10-year deal, and a cap of US$2 billion for playing contracts during that 10-year period.
The players’ proposal outlines a cut in salaries of US$500 million over five years, enhanced revenue sharing among the league which is specifically aimed at narrowing the divide between ‘big’ and ‘small’ franchises, the lowering of the minimum age to 18 which would allow players to enter the league straight out of High School, and a neutral arbitrator for all on-court disciplinary matters.
Stern spoke further about the pending meetings, and gave a stark warning of the ramifications of a possible lockout.
“I sure would like to see us make a deal,” Stern said. “And not making a deal should give everybody apprehension, because the way to continue our growth is to come up with a deal that keeps our union as the highest-paid union in the world, gives all of our teams the opportunity to make a profit and makes us a more competitive league.”
But Stern makes no mention of one incredibly important component in all of this: the NBA fans.
They have been the forgotten party in this unseemly squabbling.
The head of the NBA Players Union, Billy Hunter, tried to relate the players’ current situation to that of workers all over the world.
“It’s part of the overall climate that one sees,” Hunter said. “True, our players may earn a few more dollars than the average person, but they’re still confronted by the same issues.”
Hunter does have something of a point, but it is impossible to relate the plight of multi-millionaire ball players to that of the average person.
And that’s the real issue with an impending lockout: it’s the average fan that has the most to lose, not players or owners. Both sides will lose some money and maybe some games, but ultimately, they are always going to get their share. While basketball is mostly a business to both parties, to the fans it is so much more.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the richest fan, enjoying courtside seats in the lap of luxury, or the poorest fan that can’t even afford a ticket to the arena, who has to watch the game on TV at home, it has the same meaning.
We, the fans, ride every single moment, rejoice in every win and lament every loss. Fans can find sanctuary in the game and their team.
It’s why even after a defeat, the regulars will still show up the next night, because they’re certain that they’ll get the next one.
It doesn’t matter what else is going on in a fan’s life, there’s always the next game, and with it comes the promise of potential glory and future championships. It’s what keeps fans coming back, time and time again.
Millions of kids around the world are right now dreaming of someday becoming an NBA player, while scores of fans are poring over their teams’ additions in the recent NBA draft, and figuring out why next year will be their year.
To paraphrase the NBA’s own tagline, we love this game.
But having to watch players and owners squabble over their millions, detracts from that love. After all, without fans, there wouldn’t be any money at all.
Someone needs to remind them that.