David Stern sounds serious — which means threat to next season must be serious

A funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse.

No, it wasn't Carmelo Anthony's saying "I had fun," after scoring 42 points in the game of his life at Boston . . . as the Knicks went down, 0-2, on their way to 0-3.

This involves labor, where, as everyone knows, doom waits just over the horizon.

In the first good news for you holdouts who think there's a chance they'll play 70 games next season . . .

Oh, no one thinks that?

Actually, I do, or did, until some GM types, who thought they'd be back playing by Dec. 1, began saying it might be more like Dec. 1, 2012.

At Friday's Game 3 in Madison Square Garden, Commissioner David Stern dropped all posturing and made a plea to start talking in earnest.

Until then, Stern's demands — 40% giveback, cutting existing contracts — looked less like a proposal and more like Attila the Hun sending a rider to tell the townspeople he was coming.

In reply, union head Billy Hunter rolled his eyes and waited for Stern to get serious.

NBA people railed that the union was ignoring the crisis, detailed in the owners' IRS statements provided to it . . . while acknowledging this season's projected $4-billion revenue will surpass last season's record $3.6 billion.

Said a league official, incredulously:

"They keep asking us, 'What do you really want?' "

Actually, both sides understood it was a game, even agreeing not to call each other names over All-Star weekend.

What Stern, or, more to the point, his owners, want is half . . . which is still a monumental 20% giveback, requiring monumental fall-back room.

So we got hints of contraction . . . as Stern docked 29 teams $7 million apiece to buy the New Orleans franchise, knowing he'll sell it after this unpleasantness and give them $8 million-$9 million back.

Not that Stern wasn't going to get real — but it looked as if it would be closer to Sept. 15 than July 15.

By then the media would have written off the season and pronounced the NBA dead . . . the environment Stern hoped to create from the get-go.

Then came Friday in the Garden with Lisa Salters of ESPN.

Asked about the lessons of the ongoing NFL lockout, Stern said, forthrightly:

"What I have learned is you should make a deal. You get the courts involved, you get the union involved, as going out of business, supposedly. The players argue with each other.

"It's a terrible mess. We've got to try the best we can to avoid that. . . .

"I would guess we're going to go into very intense meetings and negotiations now."

The NBA is unveiling a new proposal, although I have the over/under on the giveback at 30%.

Stern's words still represent a change in tone, as the NFL union's decertification sobered up the football owners from arrogance that reached the point of buffoonery.

In the last bargaining session Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was allowed to attend, he reportedly asked Peyton Manning, "What do you know about player safety?" and "Do I have to help you read a revenue chart, son?"

Now, it's a de-certifiable mess as they await Judge Susan Richard Nelson's decision that could lift the lockout, with players confident they'll prevail, as they have over and over in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

Stern, the sharpest lawyer working in sports, may see more than a mess here . . . like NFL owners about to get it between the eyes.

Happily for the NFL, it has no real economic issues, as the respected Sal Galatioto, a financial consultant for pro teams, said recently on CNBC.

Any time NFL owners wish to, they can declare peace and probably will before too long.

The NBA and its players, on the other hand, have real issues and important gaps to close.

They're as much about major market domination (see: LeBron James to Miami, Anthony to New York, et al.), uneven distribution of profits, and losses suffered in other businesses by owners like Phoenix's Bob Sarver, a banker, and Sacramento's Maloof brothers, who own a casino.

Nevertheless, Forbes' projections — which the NBA disputes — had 17 of 30 teams losing money last season and an overall $153-million operating profit . . . a 4.25% return on $3.6 billion.

With businesses typically insistent on 10%, at least, the painful truth for players is the owners are entitled to a giveback.

The painful truth for the big owners is that everyone else can't exist to groom stars for them, so a hard cap and/or a franchise-player system is needed.

(Contraction, as espoused by Lakers people, is exponential arrogance.)

No one can see down the line farther or faster than Stern, who is often frustrated, waiting for the world to catch up.

Talking to the silver-tongued devil last week on the Sacramento story, I fumbled around posing a question.

Figuring out where I was going by about word two, Stern answered and wished me a nice weekend before I got it out.

The guy may actually be a genius, but we'll know more by Dec. 1.


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