When David Stern and his henchmen Michael Jordan, Paul Allen, Peter Holt and Dan Gilbert backed the players into a corner last week, giving them one last chance to take the bad deal before the beatings started again, they expected broke athletes to cower and beg for mercy. They still expect that later, maybe in January, maybe next September. They expect these NBA players to do what the NBA players of 1998 and 1999 did: fracture, fall apart and decide that life with the big bully wasn't so bad. They want players to go experience life in the lower levels of Europe and in China and remember the clear air and lack of lit flares at Madison Square Garden. The bullies want the money to dry up and the beaten players to admit final defeat. They have always wanted to break the players, and now they'll get their chance, as solidarity becomes even more important to the athletes just as it becomes most difficult.
But David Stern and his henchmen will hopefully soon realize that these aren't the NBA players of 1998 and 1999. These players are different in so many ways, from off-court pursuits to their ability to communicate directly with fans. But there is one incredibly important way in which these players are different than the previous incarnations that matters more than all else.
They are really fricking rich.
You'll see it noted in every pro-owner opinion piece that David Stern possessed the genius that made the NBA what it is today, a league capable of paying even average players $5 million a year. He grew the league to its monstrous size, he ushered in the superstar paradigm and resultant mammoth TV deals. Well, if he did all of that, he also created the conditions under which LeBron James did not give a flying fig what anyone thought of his move to Miami. He also created the conditions under which Carmelo Anthony could invoke the spirit of Kareem and pick his destination. (Melo, mind you, wasn't exactly a serial MVP like Kareem. Melo is roughly the 20th-best player in the NBA. And he has this pull.)
Money is the ultimate weapon, and players now have more of it than ever before. Consider this: Patrick Ewing, the superstar near the end of his rope during the 1998-99, one with enough money to last two dozen lifetimes? By 1998, he'd made $80 million over 11 seasons while missing just two All-Star Games. Amar'e Stoudemire, who has six All-Star Games in nine years? He's already there, over $80 million. And he has four years left on his current contract stretching up toward $20 million annually. And he has a clothing line you can purchase at your local Macy's.
NBA players in 1998 were rich, but a good portion had no clue what to do with wealth. Exhibits A through ZZ are references to Kenny Anderson. But today's stars are different. LeBron James sips tea with Warren Buffet and owns a stake in the Liverpool Football Club. The NBA is a day job for guys like LeBron, Melo and Amar'e. You know how owning an NBA team is a hobby to most of these billionaires, it's just a fun side gig? For the great majority of players, the NBA is the day job, the moneymaker, the lifeblood. The stars? They need it, but they won't shrivel up and die without it. Does anyone think LeBron is in any danger whatsoever of going broke?
That's why you see the mid-rung guys primarily moving overseas to take any jobs that open up. There are exactly two All-Stars playing overseas during the lockout: the trendsetting Deron Williams, and Tony Parker, who is playing for a team he runs in France. Everyone else is either foreign-born or is a true mid-rung player who needs a paycheck during his prime, and who might be in Europe even if there weren't a lockout. Players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant don't need the paycheck; they'll be content to appear at one-off exhibitions if the reward matches the risk while otherwise enjoying their time off. Don't get me wrong: Kobe and KD want back on the court, both because they are in love with the game and because they have unfinished business on the court. But they don't need the NBA and its owners to survive. Neither does Steve Blake or Serge Ibaka. Steve Blake, who has started only about half of his NBA games and averages less than 25 minutes a night, has made $20 million over eight years. (By comparison, John Starks -- who made an All-Star team in '94 -- had made half as much as Blake by this point in his career.) Steve Blake might be clamoring to get back on the court, but that's only because he wants to add to his wealth, not because he sees it slipping away.
In 1999, David Stern and his owners wanted to cap the amount stars could make. They wanted to take power from the biggest and baddest players, to wrest it back and line their own pockets. In doing so, they either ignored or didn't see the consequences: the redistribution of wealth from a select few at the top to the bulk of the player base. The owners' greed in 1999 made Steve Blake's $20 million (and counting) career possible. When the NBA decided it wouldn't allow teams like Cleveland to pay whatever it wanted to keep a player like LeBron, it laid the path for The Decision. And now David Stern and the owners don't like what they see. They don't like the concentration of talent. They don't like the concentration of power. They don't like the players to wrest any sort of control over the process of team creation, over progress of league reform. They don't like seeing the players take any bit of power.
And now, in the vacuum of the NBA's own creation, there exists the opportunity for the players to take ultimate power by waiting these lawsuits out. By holding the owners themselves hostage. By forcing Jerry Buss to watch the value of his prized possession, the Lakers, eat itself away slowly. By forcing David Stern to see his legacy lose its luster, inch by inch. By forcing Peter Holt to watch Tim Duncan's wrinkles form, by forcing to watch Wyc Grousbeck see his championship core turn gray, by forcing Donald Sterling to think about his golden idol risk his health in pick-up games in empty gyms. In 1999, because of the lack of sophistication most players had about wealth and how to handle it, time was on the owners' side. Things are different now. Robert Sarver and the Maloofs and Joe Lacob have a helluva lot of skin in this game to watch their investments get chewed up by Father Time. They all need and deeply desire a new system. But what good is a new system without a league to employ it in?
Make no mistake: with this week's moves by the players, the scales have evened. The players are no longer content to negotiate from the corner David Stern put them in. They looked Stern and MJ and Paul Allen and Dan Gilbert right in their gold-specked eyes and they waved a middle finger and they said, "No mas." That's what David Stern has to deal with now, if this ever gets back to the negotiating table: a collection of players that have had enough. And if it doesn't get back to the table, and the players continue to hold strong -- certainly not a given, but much more plausible because of the new money standards -- then the owners' fates will be decided by judges. Billionaires aren't used to being told what to do, so it'll be a nice new perspective on what the players have been through the last five months, should the courts go the athletes' way.
Let's see if the owners have the stomach to accept their own medicine.
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