First, let me extend my apologies for what seems like a blatant rip-off of Paul Harvey's signature bit. Some of you may have heard of the man, or even listened to him from time to time, but I would wager that, like fans of the Bobcats, I am the rare Harvey-holic in this corner of NBA fandom. What does he have to do with the NBA, you ask? Well, technically, nothing. But if you read on, you will see my humble attempt (not a rip-off at all!) to pay homage to Mr. Harvey in an NBA-related subject.
I always loved the way he would take a story everyone thought they knew inside and out and provide factoids and trivia that put a whole new slant on things. What is today's topic?
Mr. David Stern
You may know him as the dedicated, hard working advocate of all things NBA related. I mean, that's a commissioner's job right? Let me start by saying I have no clue what the "other" sites have had to say, I haven't read any of them in months due to personal health problems that needn't be aired here. But, like all of you, I did keep up with the goings on, or lack thereof, in the CBA negotiations. I know I couldn't possibly be the only one that felt like the script for this was written many months ago, so I apologize for any redundancy with the work of other bloggers/writers. However, I don't think anyone has laid the ducks out in a row in one place, and I hope this gives some readers a better look at the larger picture.
David Stern has been at the helm of the NBA ever since he parlayed his role as a legal advisor into a role as NBA Executive Vice President and then in 1984, stepped into the shoes of departing commissioner, Larry O'Brien. Since then he has taken the league from America's fourth-most popular sport and made it even more popular than baseball, the official national pastime. But how much of that is due to Stern's amazing acumen and how much does he owe to fortune and good luck? During his first NBA draft as "the man who wears the crown," Stern stood at center stage and welcomed such generic rookies as Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, and North Carolina's favorite son, Michael Jordan. With talent like that, to go along with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (to name but 2 of many) just coming into their own, many argue the league would have prospered quite well without Mr. Stern's help.
He has not exactly been the best friend of the players, the owners, or for that matter, the fans. If anything, he's been an equal opportunity destroyer. As Executive VP he implemented among other things, random drug testing, and a very strict dress code that players and coaches had to maintain even when off the court. He felt that to broaden the demographics of NBA fans, the "it's a black sport" reputation the league had needed to change. Do you think it wasn't motivated that way? Look up the code. It banned the wearing of slanted or backward caps, gold chains, "hip-hop" style rings, and even headphones and ear buds. Those of us old enough to remember those days can tell you that it wasn't to curb the "wannabe" behavior of Kevin McHale and Larry Bird. The players were... what would be the best way to put it... "Slightly Miffed" and no less a star than Allen Iverson complained in the media that Stern was trying to "take the hip-hop" out of the NBA. It was an omen of larger things to come.
During Stern's tenure, he has yet to succeed at preventing labor disputes and lockouts. In fact, he's repeatedly been the primary instigator, although to date he's always managed to spin things to make it appear the he's been the great peacemaker between the quarrelling sides. Want proof? In order to keep this shorter than a Michener tome, let's look at the current situation:
1. Over three years ago, Stern's office began releasing statements to the press complaining that the league was losing money hand over fist. Never one to let facts get in the way of his goals, Stern began what became an almost constant mantra to the press. He was asked how, in a time of record TV ratings, unprecedented attendance, and massive merchandising sales the league could be losing money, he blamed player salaries and the revenue sharing arrangement under the then-current CBA. He then boldly stated that the league was losing between $250-300 million each season. Many (including the players' union representatives) have questioned those numbers. So how did Stern reach his figures?
2. The NBA has more sets of books than a library. To start with, there are the ledgers kept by the 30 individual teams. Add to that the set that is kept to show the players' accountants and lawyers to verify the numbers involved with revenue sharing (a set for attendance, sets for merchandising, TV contracts, Salary cap payments from teams that go above the limit etc.) and you have part of the picture. But don't forget the actual NBA books that handle the assets and liabilities of the league as a singular unit! Still, no matter how you slice it, Stern's figures don't add up.
3. Remember our dear friend His Airness? Stern knows full well how much of the league's success over the past 25 years is due to the phenomenal ability of Michael Jordan – both on and off the court. He has maintained close contact with MJ, being instrumental in garnering Michael's involvement with the Washington Wizards, and lobbying hard with the existing owners to get them to approve Michael's (lower) bid to take over ownership of the Bobcats. He knew that making Michael Jordan, the man who saved the NBA, the first former player to own a franchise would be the marketing coup of the decade. Once the dust settled from the deal however, Stern began to turn.
4. Under pressure from the media, Stern promptly held up his old bff Michael as an example of the losses. He stated multiple times that the Bobcats' were merely the worst victim among many "lower" tier franchises when it came to financial deficits. Interestingly enough, as the Bobcats approached their first-ever playoff experience, Michael Jordan told both the Charlotte Observer and the Fox network that his team was still going to lose roughly 6 million dollars. Yet, Jordan celebrated the moment by giving out free t-shirts, lanyards, and commemorative tickets to each and every single fan in attendance.
5. At the end of the season, Stern announced that roughly half of the league franchises had lost money. The grand total was $300 million. Here's the thing though; If 15 teams wound up in the red, with the Bobcats leading the pack with a $6 million loss, it's a simple math problem that even I can figure out. (Remember, I can't count to 21 with my shoes and pants on.) Assuming that the average loss per team (see how nice I'm being?) was $6 million, 15 teams x 6 million is only $90 million. While that's sizable coin, it's a far cry from the figure Stern reported without subtracting the luxury tax dollars paid by the profitable teams that gets disbursed to the owner's that lost money.
6. (Almost done, I promise, although there really is so much more than I'm telling in this story.) Stern, caught in an outright accounting lie so outrageous that it made the player's union ask the federal court system demand to examine the leagues' books, did what he does best. He created a diversion. Out of the clear blue he started dropping the concept of "Team Contraction" into his press conferences. Wouldn't it be a shame, he repeatedly said, if the league had to downsize by getting rid of the weaker financial teams. Once again, he held up the Charlotte Bobcats as the first team to go. How did that knife in the back feel MJ? This was not a threat from the owners. But the term was so provocative that it sent fans into a fearful tizzy that was felt from Charlotte, to Minnesota, and all the way to the former home of the Sonics. If you want to know what the fans in Seattle think of Stern, go to one of their blogs and ask. It will truly open your eyes. Be sure to ask about the terrific stadium deal that stands between the city and the return of the NBA.
7. It was at this point that the players saw the writing on the wall. At Stern's continued pressure on the owners in both the media and behind closed doors, union rep and Spokesperson Billy Hunter started speaking of the lockout as "inevitable."
8. The final nail in the coffin was the NBA draft as the players watched team after team made draft picks that could generously be called, "project players." Now to be fair, the draft was absent any instant superstars, but that was also due to the impending lockout threat. Few if any of the potential rookies are ready to play first string in the NBA. Many, as witnessed by the Bobcats own multiple picks, may require several seasons to reach the desired potential. It was obvious to everyone that the owners were making their choices with a lengthy work stoppage at the front of their minds.
So, the deadlines have all come and gone and we're now facing, at the very least, a truncated season. In recent weeks Commissioner Stern has steadily backed away from the labor dispute that he himself orchestrated. If he conforms to the battle plan he's used in the last 2 lockout/strikes that occurred on his watch, his next step will be to claim that he did all he could, but neither side will listen to reason. Witness the groundwork he's already laid. According to Stern, he presented a 50/50 revenue sharing split and made it sound like the most reasonable solution since Solomon offered to cut an infant in half. What he failed to mention was that the 50/50 split would occur after the owners received a $350 million payment off the top.
Just think about it for a moment. No players = no NBA. That was the motivation for giving the players the larger slice of the profit pie (currently 57%) in the first place. The players, acknowledging that these are hard times for a lot of people, have been offering to reduce their take down to 53% and the owners have steadfastly refused. This is the cause of the current impasse. They haven't even begun to address other issues such as the owner's demand that contract lengths be shortened, maximum salaries be reduced, or their desire to make those changes retroactive. You didn't think those outrageous contracts that LeBron Shames and others wrangled would actually get paid out, did you? This entire debacle, spun to look unavoidable, is something that has been carefully constructed over the course of several seasons.
So what happens next? Within the next couple of days Stern, with an expression of utter regret on his face, will begin chopping weeks off of the current season. He will also (as witnessed by statements already making their way into the press) talk about how each month of lost games will cost the owners hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. He'll appear to have completely forgotten the statements he made a year ago when he said that the finances were so bleak that many teams would actually save millions of dollars in the event of a shortened or cancelled season. His "contraction" and "possible bankruptcy" routine have done their jobs and can now be discarded, denied, or spun into something different. That's how Stern operates. He creates disaster and controversy (remember his brilliant "respect the game" rules last season?) and then shows up to miraculously save the day and tighten his death-grip on the NBA. Once this current crisis passes, he will resume talking about making the NBA a global league by expanding into Europe and Latin America. He won't even miss a beat or mention the disastrous public relations caused by the labor dispute. He won't point out the drop in attendance and ratings as part-time and recently addicted fans vote with their feet and stop watching either. The media will lap it up because he'll have once again saved the day like a knight in shining armor.
Thank you for reading this lengthy rant. If you made it all the way through, you now know "the rest of the story."