At some point during his press conference on Thursday, the joke stopped being funny, and David Stern just became full-on infuriating. The joke was that the NBA was somehow forced into this lockout.
Looking weathered and sounding as pained as he possibly could, Stern called it the NBA's "only option" in the face of the NBA's economic realities. He talked as though this whole thing was some sort of natural disaster. At one point he actually said, "These type of things take on a life of their own, and I'm just not sure where that life's going to lead." That's when it became infuriating.
Because beyond his smug posturing, Stern's right about lockouts. They can take on a life of their own, to the extent that they can squeeze the life out of a league long after the lockout is overwith. Stern should know this better than anyone in the NBA.
He oversaw the NBA's lockout in 1998, a disastrous battle that left his league limping for a solid five or six seasons in the aftermath. Back then, that was the first major black mark on a resume of the man who'd ushered pro basketball into the most prosperous era of all time. Now?
At best, Stern's legacy is more complicated. At best, he stood by idly while the Seattle Supersonics were stolen away to Oklahoma City. At best, while Donald Sterling embarrasses the league with racist, dishonest business practices, Stern's been an innocent bystander. At best, Stern presided over an officiating scandal that no commissioner could have seen coming. At best, Stern's been the victim of circumstances of beyond his control.
At worst, David Stern's arrogance and the failures of his unilateral judgment have been the common thread with everything that's gone wrong in the NBA over the past decade or so, and the NBA Lockout might be what finally costs him the benefit of the doubt.
For the NBA owners, a lockout's a calculated risk. If enough owners truly believe the league's financial model is broken, then it's worth it for them to risk the NBA season if it means they can get a better deal for the next 5-10 years. It's a simple business principle, they think, and since many of those owners can point to red balance sheets and say they'd lose money anyway, it makes even more sense to them. That's the psychology underpinning the owners' refusal to compromise. Bite the bullet in the short term and reap the rewards later on.
Part of that psychology hinges on the assumption that they can successfully break the players. The owners believe that they'll have public perception on their side, and they're probably right. Listening to the radio Friday morning, I heard a DJ read the lockout news off an AP Wire and say, "I'm not sure what all that means, but I assume the players want more money, and the owners aren't havin' it."
That's dead wrong, of course. The players understand the system needs change. They've already offered to sacrifice their profit shares, part of a proposal that would reportedly reduce their revenues by at least $500 million over the lifetime of their proposed CBA.
Now it's David Stern's job to make fans believe the players are being unreasonable. He got a head start on Thursday, twisting the players' latest CBA proposal—again, at least a $500 million sacrifice—into a money grab from the players. "The proposal that we're confronted with is one that seeks to take the average compensation to $7 million by year six. I don't expect anyone to appreciate either side," Stern said with a shrug on Thursday.
"But our owners are at bottom running a business that they want to make certain modifications to. Which is on the competitive front, for their fans and fans of all 30 teams, and on the profit side, for the investment that they make to get the league at $6 billion of revenue, where it's struggling simply to break even, without money for revenue sharing, and a (player proposed) increased player compensation of an average of seven million dollars."
Another shrug. "I guess the fans can look at that, and make what judgments they might." Yes, if the fans were reading David Stern's press conference without annotations, they might think that while the NBA loses money, the players are demanding more. Just like the DJ said this morning.
The truth doesn't matter here, and the lockout's already taken a life of its own—a bizarre, alternate universe where the gatekeeper of professional basketball twists the numbers around to make professional basketball players look greedy and unreasonable. The irony's pretty funny until you consider the stakes, and what this game does to The Game. That's when the smug shrugs become infuriating.
The owners may believe this is all an investment, but what they don't understand is that moreso than any league in America, in the NBA, the players are the product. Making them look greedy and unreasonable only makes it harder for fans to embrace the game whenever it returns.
Meanwhile, as the owners cry hardship, the league's as popular as ever. The economics may not be perfect, but in the past year the sport became more popular than it's been since before the '98 lockout. What the NBA owners are doing now is jeopardizing that progress in the name of profits.
Bite the bullet, reap the rewards, etc.
The owners' greed has eclipsed their common sense, though. Rather than brokering a compromise and riding the wave of popularity toward profits the sport's never seen, the NBA owners are hoping to railroad the same players that made the game so popular. It's shortsighted.
Regardless of the losses, the benefits of owning a basketball team can't be calculated. As the league's popularity flowers, the owners' investment matures. Losing tens of millions in operating costs can be recouped later when you make hundreds of millions selling the team. Or when you use the team to start new revenue streams in and around the stadium. Or when the league's so healthy that it leads to a multi-billion dollar television contract. If the league's healthy, eventually, smart owners will all come out ahead.
No, the NBA lockout isn't about the owners' business sense prevailing. It's about greed and financial insecurity obscuring business sense. By locking out the players and refusing to compromise, the NBA owners are actively trying to turn fans against the players, assuming that profits later on will the make the whole experience worthwhile. Again, shortsighted.
And David Stern should know better. He's lived through a lockout war, and this one figures to be even more brutal. Players are already threatening to skip the season to defend themselves. And rather than fight to protect his sport, Stern's fighting a petty PR battle, looking smug as ever, posing as a victim of economic realities that left no other option.
He helped the Seattle Supersonics move for the same reason. On the other hand, he's ignored Donald Sterling for years, he ignored questions about NBA officiating, and he's always refused revenue sharing while musing about his league's competitive imbalance. All because, in those cases, he refuses to acknowledge the same reality he cited Thursday. At best, he's a serial victim of circumstance. Blame anybody but him.
For years now, Stern's teflon persona has been part of his appeal. Even when he's angry, he can be funny, and oddly charming. At his best, he's the guy whose withering sermons disarm critics and leave the rest of us shaking our heads and smiling, because "That's David Stern."
But now the lockout's forcing us to look closer at Stern, the man at the center. And when you add up all the smug press conferences, the media manipulation, the selective attention to the NBA's problems, and the fundamental insanity of using a lockout as leverage after the most successful season in years... When you consider those realities—isn't David Stern kind of the worst?