Still time for labor panic in NBA

  • By Mark Heisler Los Angeles Times
  • Saturday, March 28, 2009 6:30pm
  • SportsSports

Here’s an update on the 2010 free-agent class with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, et al: There isn’t going to be one.

The entire league is buzzing about The Lockout of 2011, as if David Stern just rode across the sky in a flaming chariot with a scythe, spelling “Repent by 2011” with his exhaust.

“I think it’s going to be very, very extreme, because I think that the times are extreme,” former super-agent David Falk told the New York Times.

“The owners have the economic wherewithal to shut the thing down for two years, whatever it takes, to get a system that will work long term.”

Did I fall asleep for two years and miss Dow 1,000?

Of course, the economy scares everyone and pundits are pundits. Then there are the people with personal agendas, like Falk, pushing projections like:

Forget free agency in 2010.

James, Wade and Bosh will supposedly re-sign this summer, before half the league goes out of business.

Actually, because it was LeBron, who opted to become a free agent in 2010 by taking a shorter contract, and Wade followed suit, I’d look for them to play it out.

Falk, who guided Michael Jordan’s commercial breakthrough, once said celebrities didn’t have race, and they’re recession-proof too.

Phil Jackson mused last week that Kobe Bryant will re-sign this summer because there’s no place good to go.

Personally, I wouldn’t look for Kobe to re-up if the Lakers don’t win a title. Imperial as he is, he has a keen appreciation of leverage, and, I think, no intention of giving it away on one of the two occasions he will have had it as an NBA player, unless he knows everything’s right.

Say goodbye to the NBA as we know it.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons, renaming the NBA the “No Benjamins Assn.,” recently wrote:

“Looking at the next 15 months only, the consensus of people in the know was that multiple NBA franchises (guesses ranged from three to eight) will move cities, get sold to new owners or throw themselves on the mercy of the league (which would take over.)”

Of course, if new owners step up, the old owners’ problems are solved.

Otherwise, the consensus of people in the know I know make the over/under on the teams that will move, or the NBA takes over in the next 15 months, at zero.

Meanwhile, if the NBA and the union are girding for war, someone better wake up the knights, who do the jousting.

It was Billy Hunter, the Players Assn. director, who broke the news that he and Stern had already begun talking, at their joint All-Star news conference.

Hunter, aware Stern wants give-backs, still embraced old-time NBA community, noting, “We all understand that we live and benefit from the success of the NBA. The last thing we want to do is see it lose its vitality.”

The next important date in this looming crisis is Dec. 15, 2010 — the season after next — so maybe looming is the wrong word.

At that point, the NBA will forego its option to extend the deal. Then come six months of fruitless talks until the deadline, at the end of the season.

At that point, Stern and Hunter will saddle up and try to run each other through, as in 2005 when they went from a warm, fuzzy All-Star news conference to Stern’s plea over Hunter’s head to avoid “a tragic mistake of epic proportions” at the Finals.

Nine days later, they had a deal.

In a hopeful sign, Falk now notes the 1998 lockout cost the players “40 percent of their salaries, and they got a worse deal,” advising them not to “make the same dumb mistake.”

If you want to talk about dumb, listening to Falk on labor peace is like making Bernie Madoff secretary of the Treasury so he can fix the financial system.

Falk was the biggest, most powerful hawk in 1998. With Hunter new on the job, Falk effectively took over the union, packing its leadership with clients Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

It was so bitter, Stern almost pulled the plug before Hunter made a last-minute appeal for a final offer, insisting the players would accept it over objections from the militants — Falk, fellow agent Arn Tellem and union counsel Jeff Kessler.

The militants still hoped to prevail when the players met to vote, with Ewing, the union president, noting, “We’re going to put it to the test, but we’re going to make sure they stand by their negotiating committee.”

Actually, the players wanted to play. Shaquille O’Neal, playing peacemaker with Leonard Armato, his agent at the time, told a friend, “I’m going back there and knock out Ewing and Mourning.”

The players endorsed the deal, 179-5. Tellem accepted it manfully, and Kessler helped write it. Falk slipped away, and wound down his practice … until now, when he announced his return by turning history on its head.

Actually, Falk’s first trick was getting Elton Brand to leave the Clippers for the 76ers, where Elton is now like Napoleon on Elba.

Of course, by the spring of 2011 when all this will be resolved, we’ll know if the economy has turned around.

If it hasn’t, we’ll all have bigger worries than the NBA.

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