On basketball

Common cause becoming apparent

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 20, 2011

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LOS ANGELES — It’s ironic and likely unintentional how NBA commissioner David Stern raves about the health of the league, about increased television revenue, worldwide popularity, and the exponential growth of All-Star Weekend, and yet he agonizes over the league’s record financial losses.

Last year in Dallas, he dropped the figure of $400 million in deficits per season and said that the league’s smaller markets were suffering. A few months later, he watched two premium free agents join the same large-market team in Miami while those smaller markets he is fighting to protect are unable to improve through free agency unless they grossly overpay.

So the system is broken, and the Players Association and the league met Friday afternoon at a Beverly Hills hotel to discuss how far apart they really are. It seems the owners want the players to help them control themselves and the players have no interest in taking part in reducing their own salaries.

A recurrent theme has emerged this weekend. Neither side appears to want a lockout, although the owners have threatened one if an agreement is not reached by June 30, when the current CBA expires.

Usually, Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and Stern spend All-Star Weekend taking shots at each other. This weekend, they didn’t even volley.

It was a case of two leaders realizing that a work stoppage would irrevocably damage the sport, and the consequences now would be far greater in comparison to the lockout in 1998.

The NBA is more popular now than it was even in the Michael Jordan era, with a renaissance of talent and a wealth of young players. And while the fiery Hunter has taken verbal shots at Stern in the past, he appeared exceptionally understanding of the delicacy of the next few months of negotiation.

“It’s going to hurt all of us,’’ Hunter said about a potential lockout. “It’s going to hurt everybody connected with NBA basketball, the players, the owners, all of the folk who work within the industry, the vendors, the people who work in the concession stands.

“The impact is going to be significant. Maybe we don’t publicize it as much as the NFL has, but we’ll be spending some time over the next couple of months getting that message out.’’

Stern agreed. He paralleled Hunter’s comments by saying the difference between negotiations now and in 1998, when owners shut down the league for 32 games, was that neither had ever endured the consequences of a work stoppage.

That is something that should serve as encouragement to NBA fans. The players have never enjoyed more financial success, and there is a consensus among the players that something will have to be adjusted in the league’s salary model.

Too many players are living off guaranteed contracts they never lived up to. Too many players were brilliant during their free agent seasons and were never the same caliber once the checks from the new contract began rolling in.

Players Association president Derek Fisher of the Lakers said Friday’s meeting consisted of some owners asking the players to help them police themselves. And Stern realizes he works for a diverse group of owners, some of whom resent the smaller market owners for their frugality.

The owners seem more united about changing the current financial structure than in years past, but when the Lakers signed a $3 billion television contract with Time Warner, Stern’s cries of poor-mouth went unheard by Hunter and the players.

So the question is how much each side will be willing to relinquish to maintain peace and continue the momentum the sport has gathered in the post-Jordan era. Both leaders seem intent on a settlement and will meet several times in the next few months in small groups to foster a deal.

That’s light-years away, but the sentiment this weekend is more encouraging and positive than in years past, and that’s something fans can hold on to for now.

“I think what we have learned and what the union has learned is we both have the capacity to shut down the league,’’ Stern said. “There’s no magic that’s going to keep the league operating if we don’t make a deal. That’s a very instructive lesson.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at

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