I was super excited to get a call from David Stern. But it was so noisy in the newsroom, I thought the NBA commissioner said, "I will end the lockout if the players support my hard-cap plan," when he actually said, "I will wear a dunce cap before giving in to the players’ demands."
As the NBA labor dispute threatens to wipe out an entire season, the union’s arguments are being received about as well as Tony La Russa’s World Series bullpen phone flap: They’re falling on deaf ears.
First, some historical perspective. When Stern joined the league as general counsel in 1978, the NBA was in a dreadful state. The arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird the following year brought the game back to prominence, and by the time Michael Jordan burst on to the scene in 1984, the NBA’s popularity exploded just as Stern was being named commissioner.
One of Stern’s first moves was to introduce a salary cap. Players’ average salary was $330,000. Team payroll was $3.6 million. Fast forward to 2010 when the average NBA salary was $5.15 million, the highest of all professional sports. Team payrolls were $58 million. For comparison’s sake, the average U.S. worker’s wage index (pay, benefits and pensions) in 1984 was $16,000. Today that figure is about $42,000.
So, in the last quarter of a century while the typical American saw his annual compensation increase about 160 percent, NBA players pay shot up 1,500 percent. Of course, that didn’t count Latrell Sprewell, who in 2005 scoffed at the Minnesota Timberwolves’ three-year, $21 million contract offer, saying it wasn’t enough to feed his children. Then again in 2008, nobody forced the Wizards to pay Gilbert Arenas $111 million or the Warriors to give Andris Biedrins $62 million for six years. Unfortunately, those glory days are over for most everyone.
While the NBA continues to spread globally with offices in 11 foreign cities and games televised in 215 countries, the league claims 22 of its 30 teams are losing money, including the Sacramento Kings, who will possibly relocate to Anaheim, and the New Orleans Hornets, who have been under league ownership since last December.
Sure, Stern has riled players with his mandatory dress code, arbitrary introduction of the ill-fated microfiber basketball and general arrogance. But he also approved a collective bargaining agreement that gave players 57 percent of revenues and implemented 10 different salary cap exemptions which allowed paychecks to skyrocket.
Maybe fans would be more sympathetic to player demands if they too could manipulate the workplace like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosch did in choreographing new contracts in Miami or force their bosses hand like Carmelo Anthony did in engineering his midseason move to the Knicks.
Self-preservation and promotion are understandable, but all too often it has come at the expense of their teams and the game. Stern’s desire to change that doesn’t make him a "modern day plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were boys ... keeping the hired hands in their place," as Bryant Gumbel railed on HBO. Demanding a 50-50 revenue split, a true salary cap to keep smaller market teams competitive and an end to those wacky "sign-and-trade" deals sound like reasonable belt-tightening more than any sort of modern day bull-whipping.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.