The NBA lockout still rages on, but we have a preliminary assessment of the winners and losers of the stoppage. As usual, Michael Jordan reigns.
As of the time of this writing the NBA lockout is shambling into an unmapped Nuclear Winter(tm). But it's not too soon -- and in the age of the intertubes is it ever? -- to make sweeping statements on how the lockout's galaxy of major and minor players have altered our perceptions.
The Hardline Owners, whose revolutionary zeal seems to be driving the proceedings. Who and how many are they? The four biggest names amongst the most likely suspects are:
* Dan Gilbert, Cleveland Cavaliers. Gilbert's illustrious pre-lockout resume includes subprime loans before they were cool, giant stickers of athletes for when you desperately need to shrink your pool of prospective mates and his infamous response to his former star LeBron James's Decision(tm) crafted lovingly in Comic Sans. In fairness to Gilbert he did watch his franchise's value pop like a housing bubble when LeBron went south to Miami; It's natural to expect Gilbert to want mechanisms included in the new collective bargaining agreement that would limit the ability of star players to hold their teams hostage.
But Gilbert's lockout storyline goes beyond a bit of revenge, for Gilbert contains multitudes ... multitudes of seemingly self-aware bacteria that line his intestine and give it not just the ability to digest foodstuffs but to predict the effects of non-existent financial structures on the 400-plus players of the NBA. Billy Hunter claims that when he balked at a deal that featured a 50-50 split of revenue because he didn't know what the system would look like, Gilbert implored him to "Trust my gut." You know, like they were at the OTB betting the ponies or playing Battleship instead of negotiating a multi-billion dollar deal. Spoken like a true casino owner.
* Paul Allen, Portland Trail Blazers. Allen derives his fabulous wealth from his work with Bill Gates in the founding of Microsoft. He has used that wealth to gain interests and holdings in a diverse portfolio of businesses ranging from real estate to entertainment and philanthropic pursuits which is managed by his company Vulcan. Oh, and he's also lived his life like a combination of Richard Branson without the charm and Batman but if Bruce Wayne only wanted to dress up in costume and do donuts in the Batmobile rather than fight crime. Antarctic excursions? Check. Private paramilitary security force? Check. Multimillion dollar vanity museum designed by Frank Gehry which houses pop music and science fiction memorabilia and which doubles as a hole into which one throws money? Check. The Blazers under Allen have been largely successful on the court with a heady mix of malcontents, youthful promise, smart stat-driven management, smart stat-driven managers being fired and a plague of lower body injuries. Allen made his mark on the NBA lockout with his grim reaper meets Hollow Man take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum halting hours of negotiations that he somehow -- if the reports are accurate -- delivered wordlessly.
* Robert Sarver, Phoenix Suns. Sarver made his name in banking and real estate. And boy howdy, isn't that a rock solid pair of business to be involved these last few years? Sarver's banks required hundreds of millions in government TARP funds. Under Sarver, the Suns have been been incredibly adept at shedding payroll in the form of players, draft picks and employees -- Sarver famously low-balled GM Steve Kerr after a conference finals run -- all the while avoiding the luxury tax like an ex at a party. (You know, just how the other hardline owners and small market teams dream of the luxury tax working.) Sarver's signature lockout moment was his comment that his wife had asked him to return to Arizona with the mid-level exemption in her purse. I love that for two reasons - 1) a woman with an eye for arcane salary cap exemptions is obviously a keeper, and 2) Robert Sarver is so cheap he travels with his wife's purse.
* Michael Jordan, Charlotte Bobcats. He's been trolling us all these long years; we just haven't recognized it until now. First it was baseball and the sneaker-buying predilections of the GOP and its supporters. Then it was the Hitler 'stache and acid wash mom jeans. Now it's MJ's role as a hardliner, pushing for the players to receive a 47 percent split of revenue and practically inviting the reference to his famous "sell your team" comment to Abe Pollin during the last lockout. But all of that is in character, you see, because Michael has never cared what anyone thinks; he knows you care and that's what makes hitting the game-winner in your face that much sweeter. He becomes, arguably, the biggest winner in this morass with his Godfather to end all Godfather moves: putting the last fruitful years of Kobe's career in jeopardy as he chases that sixth title and legitimate comparisons to MJ.
People who hate the NBA. It's Christmas in heaven for the NBA haters right now. People who have never given the NBA the time of day pre-lockout -- except to say they don't like it or it isn't what it used to be or college kids play harder -- now speak with the gravitas of a bonafide expert. Everyone cared about the NFL lockout; nobody cares about the NBA lockout! Want to hate humanity? Read the comments section of any lockout piece on any website and be transported to America in the '50s. The 1850s. These took 15 seconds to find and probably aren't all Paul Shirley:
"Dunking a basketball is not rocket science. All you need is a BIG DUMMY"
"I'm either going to change my name to Pedro Gomez to get all the FREE government handouts from taxpayer's money like the border-jumpers do or be a water boy for one of the NBA teams."
"now that nba will be cancelled, expect high crime late and expect 90% of black n**** players will be in jail within a month, they should make the jail ceiling more than 10 feet to accomodate this hudloom in shorts"
Teen Wolf, Hoosiers and The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Also retractable awnings, hair replacement procedures and fake medical insurance. This endless tribute to the low end of American consumerism is what passes for programming on NBA TV right now. Don't have NBA TV? Call you cable operator now!
James Dolan, noted bluesman and owner of the New York Knicks. Why a winner? Because for the first time in history James Dolan is viewed as being one of the good guys. Under Dolan the Knicks experienced the dual natural disasters known as Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas. The former crippled the team while the latter drew on its face with Magic Marker while it lay there incapacitated. His vanity band JD and The Straight Shot -- truly one the most horrifying abominations ever foisted upon that historic American art form called The Blues -- play venues far above their stature based on Dolan's position as one of the most powerful figures in the live music business. And yet! Because of his role as one of the lockout doves and recent comments slamming the hardliners, Jimmy's stock has never been higher in the eyes of Knicks and NBA fans. What world is this?
Anonymous Sources. Everybody has one. Who are they and what are their motives? Are they agents pushing their clients' agendas? Are they team executives playing the PR game? Are they players not wanting to be seen breaking ranks? Are they goats with the torsos of men, prancing down from the mountains, strumming the lyre and whispering into the ear of a reporter who is chosen by the man-goat after gazing into a magical pool? We will never know for sure, but we must trust them unquestioningly because never in the history of the world has a reporter made something up or has a man-goat lied to a reporter.
People who understand this lockout business and all its accompanying jargon and mysterious numbers better than me, which is to say, everyone I follow on Twitter for that exact reason. Oh, I think I'm pretty good with the broad outlines -- look! there's a tree! and a lake! -- but this is stuff I never imagined having to understand to understand professional basketball. It's like the adage about no one wanting to know how the sausage is made. This is similar, except if after the non-consensual sausage factory tour the sausage overlords forced to me work the sausage-churning machine.
The Players. The players have given on every issue up for negotiation -- the revenue split, contract size and length, luxury tax -- and they've made some missteps, like waiting too long to decertify. Still the owners want everything and seem hellbent on getting it. This is a negotiation between Godzilla and the buildings in downtown Tokyo. Tip o' the hat to the owners for the politically inspired tactic of planting your negotiating position so far out in the realms of ridiculousness that moving it from Insane to Moderately Disturbed can be spun as a concession.
"Hey, let's negotiate! I'm going to kill you and wear your face skin as a mask."
"No, that doesn't work for me."
"OK. Counter offer: I take your wallet and your car."
Roger Mason Jr, Knicks guard and member of the union's executive committee. As a Knicks fan I didn't think Mason could top his scintillating 2010-11 form that saw him score 75 total points on 33 percent shooting from the field. But he did it with the cautionary tale of the lockout: his unfortunate and ill-timed tweet he thought was a text, "looking like a season. how u". Pay attention to your apps, kids! "How U" has now taken on a life of its own as the meme of the lockout among those with the misfortune to have, by either occupation or perverted interest, been paying attention to this disaster.
David Stern, commissioner of the NBA. Stern, in his capacity as point man for the NBA negotiations, is easy to vilify. To me, however, he has become more of a King Lear type of character rather than the iron-fisted despot and cadaver cartographer he's been portrayed as. The hard line owners are the engineers of this train wreck; Stern is just the guy announcing the stops, an employee who more and more must make up for his real lack of juice with outlandish hyperbole. After delivering the NBA's latest proposal, Stern went on a Shock and Awe PR campaign on every available medium -- TV, radio, Twitter, YouTube, carrier pigeon, Babylonian cuneiform -- to deliver the message: This is the final offer. Nothing else. Reject it and the next offer is a stick figure drawing of Adam Silver's ass. And when faced with Stern's "my way or the highway" ultimatum framed as negotiation, the players took the highway, causing Stern to erupt with his now infamous "Nuclear Winter" comment ... which is where I wished I was a reporter so I could ask him, "Like, a 'Terminator' style nuclear winter where humanity still fields a robust resistance and hope of a savior or more 'The Road' where hope is dead and devoured by bands of ravening cannibals?"
In presiding over two vitriol-filled lockouts in little more than a decade, Stern's reputation as The Greatest Commissioner In Sports History lies in ruins. But here's where I differ with the current of popular opinion regarding Stern: for one I'm not sure what metrics go into being named TGCISH (just like the MVP award). Second, forget the salaries that (until now) have gone up consistently. Forget the success in marketing a majority black sport to totally not racist anymore America. Forget that pre-Stern you had a better chance of seeing a live unicorn than seeing a NBA playoff game live on television. Forget all of that. Just look at his competition! Stern is on a list with guys who had to be convinced to let black players into their sports or when they were in not to put quotas on them or that maybe with this newfangled light bulb they could play games at night or turned a blind eye to players putting on 40 pounds of muscle at age 38 or are totally cool their sport causing guys' brains to shrivel. Stern, still TGCISH (whatever that means)!
Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher, union bosses. Their relationship has been the subject of breathless Mean Girls-style speculation starting with noted The Wire scholar Jason Whitlock's man-goat driven piece alleging Fisher was trying to secure a back door deal with Stern and the owners. Fisher responded to that story with, by my count, his third and fourth open letters of the lockout -- following the Unity letter and the Agents letter -- in which he defended his integrity and made sure everyone on them corners knows he is lawyered up because the damn thang got defamatory. Add to that real questions regarding Hunter's tactics and strategy, his resistance to decertification when it was timely and his inability to forcefully challenge the NBA's financial statements (aside from saying that he hasn't seen them but has asked the NBA very nicely for them). Hunter and Fisher's poor communication with the rank-and-file became a concern as stories regarding the difficulty agents, reps and players were experiencing in getting information on the latest NBA proposals started to surface. Following a recent union meeting in which team representatives were briefed on the NBA's proposal via PowerPoint, team representatives who asked for hard copies of the proposal were rebuffed. Hopefully on environmental grounds.
Arena workers and various living wage workers who exist on the periphery of the NBA universe. No jokes. It's just sad, really.
The Fans. Even in my own list we come last.