The game is now in the courts, not on court
The NBA lockout is headed to the courts, which is a discouraging sign for fans hoping the season begins on time. The owners made a preemptive strike Tuesday by filing an unfair labor practice lawsuit against the players, attempting to squelch any chance of decertification.
Two legal experts said the move will do nothing but extend the work stoppage and perceived the legal action as the league’s way of seizing full power in building a new collective bargaining agreement.
Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said the union has not decided whether to decertify, but several high-powered agents are pushing for the players to do so. There is a league-wide perception amongst players and agents that owners have no intention of budging on a hard salary cap and many other union demands.
“I think people have to realize that the lockout is a weapon, it’s not an end to itself,’’ said Jay Krupin, Chair of the National Labor Practice for Epstein Becker Green, a law firm based in Washington D.C. “It’s an economic weapon and what’s happened here is the owners and the league mean business. The lawsuits basically mean the owners plan on taking an aggressive offensive approach. And I think we’re going to be in [a lockout] for a long time unless the players in essence cave in or realize they are going to be playing in a brand new league.’’
It is uncertain whether the players and owners will negotiate while the lawsuit is active but commissioner David Stern has repeatedly promised that the owners’ offer will become more self-serving as the lockout drags on. He left negotiations last week discouraged about the players’ desire to reach an agreement because they reiterated their unwillingness to accept a hard salary cap.
Less than 24 hours after Stern expressed his disdain, the league filed the lawsuit. The NBA wants no part of the series of antitrust lawsuits NFL players filed against the league that were eventually settled once the sides agreed on a new CBA.
“If the players were smart, they’d realize they are going to get a better deal sooner than later,’’ Krupin said. “I think the NBA knows that. In the first month, they have only one [negotiation] meeting, the NBA has declared a lockout, they have filed unfair labor practice and filed a lawsuit. And what have the players done? Nothing.
“You are talking about a league in which players make millions of dollars, in a league that’s losing hundreds of millions of dollars. You have a system that’s broken. I could virtually see a lost season. I think the owners are really putting pressure on the players and the players can’t respond.’’
Privately, there seems to be some question as to whether the fiery Hunter is willing to play a high-stakes game with Stern and lose the season. This is likely going to be Stern’s last collective bargaining agreement. He turns 70 next year and doesn’t want another unprofitable agreement with the players, especially with as many as 22 teams losing money.
Hunter was intrigued by the NFLPA’s unfair labor charge against the league after it decertified but the sides reached an agreement before the decision. With no reference for the NBPA’s next move, it will be interesting to see whether the players wait for a New York court to decide whether the league is negotiating in good faith or counter with a lawsuit of their own.
So far the players’ union has been eerily quiet.
“The players may be saying, ‘You started this fight, we might as well see what the courts have to say here,’ ’’ said antitrust lawyer Matthew L. Cantor of New York-based Constantine Cannon. “The players certainly could try to dismiss this lawsuit by saying it’s not right because we haven’t yet decertified. Even if it is dismissed, the lockout will still be going unless at some point the players challenge it. And the only way they are going to be able to challenge it is to decertify and sue the league.’’
It appears the NBA wants to legally prove that the lockout is a lawful action. It decided not to wait for the players’ union to make the first move.
Cantor believes the sides will eventually reach a deal, but it may take missed games and bad publicity to end the lockout.
“I think it’s going to cost some of the season,’’ Cantor said. “But economically, a missed season would be a nightmare, so I think an agreement does eventually happen. But it could take a while.’’
The current NBA lockout could serve as a source of anger for older players who held sometimes two jobs during their playing careers. Cousy, however, holds a different perspective. He began the Players Association in 1954 and served as its president for four years. Of course, the labor issues in those days were different. The owners could pay players whatever they wanted, the average player earned less than $10,000 per year, and there was no pension plan.
The league’s minimum salary for a player with 10 or more years of service time is now $1.399 million. Cousy admits he’s not as versed on labor issues as he once was, but he is not necessarily bitter about the escalating salaries and the security players have procured over the past five decades.
“I’m not familiar with all the issues so it’s hard to take sides,’’ Cousy said last week. “But we’ve made a great life from playing a child’s game. I said all along that the football thing would be settled quickly because there was $9 billion on the table, and if you can’t split that up without coming to blows then there’s something wrong. So it’s always a little greed that takes hold here.’’
The NBA model, according to Cousy, may be flawed because the league’s popularity has not caught up with its growth.
“My sense from observing the scene is we may have overexpanded in some cities and we’ve watered down the product,’’ he said. “There are a lot of cities in the NBA, obviously, that are not doing well that have to compete with the Bostons and the LAs and the New Yorks, so there is an imbalance there and they’re going to have to figure it out and I think the players are going to have to make maybe some sacrifices.’’
Cousy’s former Celtics teammate, Tom “Satch’’ Sanders, was an integral part of the league’s Rookie Transition Program following his playing career. Just days before he is inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor, Sanders is split on the work stoppage.
“I don’t see the air coming out of the [league’s] balloon so much,’’ he said. “I think this shows how big basketball has grown and how big the business of basketball has grown. I look at it and I would hope with the level of popularity that is here, that it wouldn’t happen. But I do understand the motives and there are many different people involved. And the motives of those on either side is to do what’s best for the sport but also to make sure it’s in a strong business position and the people involved make a good living.
“Somehow I would venture that all of them will be able to. But I’d like to have this settled so we can enjoy the game.’’
Like with Cousy, the classy Sanders feels no bitterness about the current players’ lifestyles. Sanders has accepted that times were dramatically different for the professional athlete in the 1960s and he relishes playing in that era.
“In those days, we not only had second jobs but we were trying to get the union off the ground,’’ he said. “There were all kinds of different causes and things for us to deal with. That’s called ‘reality-based’ situations. Now the players have a different level of appreciation of a lot of things. For example, we never had agents and people like that representing our interests and they [now] certainly have. And frankly, they need all the help they can get in terms of representing their interests.
“And I would like to see the players do well but I want the business to do well because it’s a combination that makes it work.’’
Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck joined Cousy and Sanders at last Monday’s “Heroes Among Us’’ ceremony at the Massachusetts State House. Grousbeck, because of a league-imposed $1 million fine for speaking about league business during the lockout, would not comment on the labor situation or even the Celtics’ widely reported new contract with Comcast SportsNet.
The Celtics are continuing their community efforts, although players are not allowed to participate. Celtics public relations officials aren’t allowed to attend or even promote a player’s community effort, such as Rajon Rondo’s court refurbishing at Malcolm X Park last Tuesday. Many players are using sponsors, agents, or their personal public relations people to promote events.
“Rodman, for me, he really played the game the way it was best for him to play and he contributed to the teams he was on having the ability to win,’’ said Sanders. “And that kind of player is so rare. And he was so good.’’
Rarely is a player who averaged double figures in scoring just once in his career - 11.6 in 1987-88 - elected into the Hall of Fame, but Rodman is a special case. He is 22d in NBA history in total rebounds with 11,954 despite playing just 911 games. For comparison, the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett is 16th with 12,819 in 1,195 games.
Rodman will be presented by Phil Jackson, his coach in Chicago. And his acceptance speech in Springfield Friday will perhaps be the most anticipated since Michael Jordan’s controversial address after being inducted in 2009.
Despite his post-career troubles, Rodman has received increased recognition for his efforts as a player. The Pistons retired his No. 10 jersey, a gesture that brought him to tears during the ceremony. Though Rodman damaged his credibility with bizarre behavior during his playing days, he has the respect of his peers and contemporaries, and that includes Sanders.
“We have talked many times before,’’ Sanders said. “I respect what he has done and how he contributed to his team. So I am excited about joining him in the Hall of Fame class.’’
Layups Lakers guard Kobe Bryant cooled rumors that he was contemplating playing for Besiktas in Turkey, the same team that signed Nets guard Deron Williams. Bryant participated in a celebrity soccer game in Washington D.C. cohosted by former Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra and told reporters he hasn’t talked to Besiktas in weeks, and that he would more than likely play in China over Turkey. An intriguing name to watch is Garnett, who signed a lucrative contract with a Chinese shoe manufacturer and has been looking to increase his marketability in the Far East. Garnett’s representatives have not returned multiple calls asking about his desire to play overseas during the lockout . . . Garnett was one of the more vocal players during the players’ summit meeting in New York last month. His contract in Minnesota helped spark the previous lockout. According to people at the summit meeting, Garnett pleaded with players not to cave in to the owners’ demands and maintain solidarity . . . Pistons vice president Joe Dumars is banking that former Celtics assistant Lawrence Frank is the right choice as coach. Frank beat out Mike Woodson, a former Pistons assistant. Celtics coach Doc Rivers wants another defensive-minded assistant to fill Frank’s role. The Celtics recently promoted assistant Mike Longabardi to the bench, and may need to fill another vacancy if Frank lures away Roy Rogers, the Celtics’ big man instructor last season. “Working with Doc was a tremendous experience,’’ Frank said during his introductory press conference. “To me, Doc is elite. The reason why he is the total package is all the experience he’s had. He’s done a great job of creating the buy-in with the players. There are a lot of things I learned from Doc. It was a tremendous experience for me to be in that organization. I learned a great deal.’’ . . . An unknown regarding the lockout is whether the league will penalize players for off-court trouble during the impasse. Michael Beasley had already been ticketed in Minneapolis for speeding and driving with marijuana in his car, and last week he pushed a heckling fan in the face during a pickup game at Rucker Park in New York.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, and team and league sources was used in this report.