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Negotiations Are Their New Labor of Love

From the ridiculous to the sublime and back: What can they ever do to follow that image of Michael Jordan, his hand held theatrically in the air on the follow-through of the game-winning shot of the NBA’s highest-rated game ever, which might have ended its greatest career?

In all decency, they shouldn’t even try. They should shut the league down.

Oh, that’s what they have in mind?

Now that his finals and his draft are out of the way, David Stern is expected to lock his players out. Because there are no games scheduled for July, August and September, this has only symbolic meaning to the parties involved and none to anyone else.

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Negotiations have been polite skirmishes, although the parties seem close on two major points.

Stern has asked for a six-year rookie wage scale, replacing the present three. The union has come back with a proposal for five.

Stern is willing to raise the minimums for veterans. The union has asked for a not-unreasonable $750,000 for five-year players.

The sticking point is the so-called Larry Bird exception, which lets teams pay their own free agents, such as Jordan, anything, like $34 million.

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Stern, no longer billing himself as “Easy Dave,” wants a hard cap and reportedly is ready to risk his league’s record of never having lost a game and rumble until Christmas or next Fourth of July.

The union, pledged to defend the Bird exception to the end and convinced it has been used like a doormat, says it’s not going to take it any longer.

The bottom line, Stern is right on this one. In the present context, Bird makes a mockery of the cap. Last season it was $26.2 million in theory, up to $62 million in fact, with the average at $32.6 million.

Moreover, it’s bad for most of the players. To make room for the 39 making $5 million or more, 149--40% of the union--were on minimum contracts last season.

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Unfortunately, the players are as much in awe of their stars as anyone, falling in line behind them with little awareness their interests diverge when union leadership says “Don’t let management split us.”

In fact, the stars are looking out for themselves. Jordan, who once disdained union activities, is now Mr. Voice of the Proletariat, defending their (read: his) right to unlimited opportunity. The union president, Patrick Ewing, awoke from his indifference during the 1995 agents’ revolt, the summer before he became a free agent (and got $18 million a year on a deal that takes him through age 41.) Gee, here’s a coincidence: Their agent, David Falk, led the revolt.

Why does Jordan or anyone need to make

$34 million in a system in which revenues are supposed to be defined, pooled and shared? It’s hardly a matter of feeding his family or insuring his kids’ future. This is only money-as-success-symbol, an obscenity.

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Not that anything will be resolved for a while.

The lockout will start real negotiations, not to mention recriminations and posturing. Nothing much should happen until mid-August, when they’ll really start in on each other.

In mid-September, with the scheduled opening of camps nearing, both sides will begin massing their troops in displays of force, with many bold vows.

Pay no attention. This struggle between the merely well off and the absurdly privileged is unseemly enough for the participants, why should you give a tinker’s damn? Let them start their silly season whenever they like.

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After last season, we can all use a rest, anyway.

THE CLIPPERS TAKE A HARD-EARNED VACATION

This isn’t science, nor are we scientists. It’s always possible for men of good will, to say nothing of colleagues of mine like J.A. Adande and Steve Springer, to disagree.

So, it is with great humility and in the spirit of friendship that I ask: What are you guys, nuts?

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Mike Bibby? Very nice young point guard prospect. Marginal size. Marginal athlete, especially among elite points.

Michael Olowokandi? Great size. Fine athlete. Career tracking up radically. Has a chance be among the top 10 centers by next spring. Has a chance to go higher before he’s through.

“If there’s a foot difference, I say take the guy with the extra foot,” Indiana President Donnie Walsh said. “I think it’s one of the most right things they’ve done in a long time.”

The Clippers can use a point guard, but Darrick Martin and Pooh Richardson are professionals, capable of bringing the ball up and making an occasional shot.

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The problem, as we go into the farewell season for that grand old paint-peeling lady, the Sports Arena, remains much higher up the directory, at the pivotal position of owner. It might be exciting (to the Clippers, anyway) to dream of Jerry West, but the best bet is still that somehow the Lakers work it out. And who says Donald T. Sterling would give West 5% of his team? Who says Donald would give up .01%?

Nor is he keen to surrender operational control of his bargain-basement operation (who ever heard of half-season contracts for assistant coaches?) Of course, going into the Staples Center is a double-edged coup, offering more visibility, enhanced marketing opportunities (which they’re flogging for all they’re worth, with the Olowokandi photo-op at the construction site), but the loss of their anonymity.

At this tender point, they’re thinking of hiring another low-priced rookie coach because they owe Bill Fitch $4 million. This is before talking to George Karl.

Karl would be pricey, to say the least. He’s high-maintenance and the Clippers don’t do maintenance. Nevertheless, he’s a talent who might get them to .500 in two seasons. Rookie coaches are rookie coaches. Nothing is free, especially in the NBA.

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Clippers are still Clippers, until something institutional changes.

LAKERS TAKE A REALLY HARD-EARNED VACATION

There’s no longer smoke pouring from the Forum. West is on the job, looking like his old self. Del Harris is back, rested and relaxed, having outlasted Nick Van Exel, even if it was close.

Their moves are mostly for chemistry now, such as the termination of Van Exel. Nick grew up here, only not enough and not fast enough. He tried. He was as much a stand-up guy as any of them. He was simply starting too far behind.

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Elden Campbell is expected to follow. This will be as much financial as chemical, the organization having lost its taste for overindulged players (that is, ones not living up to the expectations that $7 million foster.)

Nor is this good news to Robert Horry, at $5 million. He might get one more season to locate his game, or, if they can get a real power forward, he might have to pursue it elsewhere.

Rick Fox, who looked like part of the solution, is likelier to leave, because the Atlanta Hawks, who made him a big offer a year ago, haven’t been able to find a small forward. If he does, the Lakers are envisioning starting Derek Fisher and Kobe Bryant--23 and 19, respectively, making them even younger than they were last season. And, of course, still expected to win, dominate, romp to a title and start a dynasty.

Given enough time, you would expect West to finish this puzzle, but that’s still an open question. You may notice the eerie silence around the organization these days, even after months of speculation and published tales of inner strife, with no pronouncements of undying love, media distortion, etc.

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In what used to be a model of sports administration, something institutional may be changing, but we’ll have to wait a year to see.

FINAL (?) THOUGHTS ON AN UNFORGETTABLE CAREER

It ain’t over yet.

It should be over, but last week, while rumors swept the Wimbledon press box that Jordan was set to announce his retirement--I’m not making this up--Jordan was casting about for ways to come back in the absence of Phil Jackson and, presumably, Scottie Pippen.

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Let’s assume Corey Benjamin isn’t ready to take over for Pippen. The Bulls have $1 million to spend, too little for a star. Charles Barkley wants to come for the lark. Barkley has hinted to confidantes he might. This would help on the boards and with quotes, but there goes the old defense.

If Jordan hasn’t figured it out, drawing this out a year too long may not be as much fun, or ultimately as successful, but he’s on his schedule, not ours.

In the meantime, every domestic sports, news, lifestyle and economic journal seems bent on explaining the Jordan phenomenon. It’s true, he’s naturally gracious, photogenic and came along at a propitious moment, as sneaker budgets multiplied and cable networks mushroomed, but to get bogged down in that is to miss the point.

Wasn’t he just too incredible?

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In sports, the “culture of celebrity” is actually a culture of hype, with also-rans issuing endless, tiresome explanations of how they were beaten, cheated, disrespected . . .

He was One Real Deal. In the ‘90s, his decade, he always came through. The bigger the game, the longer the odds, the bigger and far-flung the viewing audience, the surer he was to triumph, all but single-handedly, thrilling fans from Valdosta to Vladivostok.

His Bulls were becoming cartoon-figure bores. They were pains in the rear to cover, but heavens, won’t we miss them when their endearing, sneering days are over? They’ll be the standards everyone will be measured against and it will be a surprise the next time anyone measures up.

Despite Stern’s list of youngsters waiting to take the baton, it’s not a question of whether the NBA will take a hit without them and him, only of how big and for how long.

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Few who saw Jordan rise from fatigue and the onset of old age one last time to seize the moment could be unmoved. The New York Times’ unsentimental Harvey Araton acknowledged feeling a tug. After the Bulls’ Game 5 loss, he said his 8-year-old son went under his bed to cry.

Myself, I was a little choked up after Jordan’s moment of moments in Game 6, and I’m a lot older than 8.

True greatness is rare enough. I can’t appreciate Nureyev or understand Einstein and I’ve covered a lot of hoopers, not to mention baseball and football players, but there was only one Michael Jordan.

(Happily, my daughter is only 4 and, though she can recognize Jordan on TV--we insist on the basics, Elvis, MJ--she wasn’t into it at that level.)

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The aftermath was like the day after Woodstock. Jim Goldstein, a leather-pants-wearing Los Angeles fanatic who was flying to the games and paying however many thousands to sit courtside, was spotted, wandering around his hotel, wondering what he would do now.

“I’m going back to my room,” he said, forlornly. “I’m going to watch ESPN over and over.”

It’ll be hard, but we--league, fans, media, world--will have to find a way to go on.


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