I stood beside a runway at my county airport just before midnight ET with a sign that welcomed basketball armageddon, and I cheered when the the clock struck and calendar page flipped. The NBA Lockout is here!, just as it was always going to be here, and now we can actually get something done, now we can actually save basketball.
The question is who we need to save it from.
The onset of the lockout needed to happen for the simple reason that it makes the pressure real. Don't think of the NBA's doomsday clock having expired: it just got going. The last two years (!) were one long tease, a set of poses that became extraordinarily apparent as so-called bargaining ramped up in June. I wrote in the second week of June that any progress the league and union claimed in the lead-up to this very day was cosmetic only, that actual compromise on the only issue that matters -- the money -- was still ages and miles away.
We're still there at the trailhead on what will be an arduous hike to some resolution we're not even sure exists. It could take another two months, or three, or four, or six, or 16. We don't know because the map is just a piece of paper with lies scribbled all over it.
Speaking of lies, how about David Stern's Thursday performance?
The media is in an ... interesting spot in reporting and opining on the lockout and labor negotiations. Both sides are dead set against releasing their proposals to the plebeian public in full; we get the details sorted through leaks (many verbal) to reporters pounding the phones and the hotel lobby. When we get those details and explain to our readers how very, very idiotic, misguided or, uh, insane a proposal is, we instantly face criticism from the side we're shredding for not knowing what we're talking about because hey!, you haven't even seen the proposal.
The league demands that the bulk of this matter be handled in the shadows, not because the public doesn't care or because they have an obligation to players to keep this under wraps, but because the NBA and Stern's office specifically fear that with the curtain pulled back, everyone will realize what an absurd misrepresentation of reality the owners are presenting.
Heavens bless Deadspin's Tommy Craggs and ESPN.com's Larry Coon for their skeptical reports on team finances Thursday. Deadspin acquired financial statements from the New Jersey Nets' late Katz and early Ratner eras; they'd already presented docs on the New Orleans Hornets that showed the NBA's funny way of doing math. Coon broke down the statements in exemplary detail, explaining why the union doubts the league's stated losses, couched in every way it needs to be to avoid summary dismissal by Stern's office.
The gist from both pieces: tax law allows sports franchise owners to write off player salaries as depreciable assets in addition to listing salaries as legit costs of doing business; basically, franchises deduct their payroll as expenses, then get an allowance for depreciation on the players being paid -- yes, depreciation on human beings -- which isn't an actual expense, but looks like one on the tax forms. Craggs, Coon and the players' union figure that knocks a decent chunk off of the league's stated losses.
There's also the matter of the franchises counting their purchase cost (and debt financing) as an expense of the team, when that's plainly wrong in terms of convincing players why salary needs to be cut. "I can't afford to pay you because I spent so much to buy the rights to pay you and profit off of you." Sorry, that's not a legit case.
This is why owners deserve and maybe will receive no sympathy: it's a new world, with new voices and a much easier, broader way to share ideas and information. The Craggs and Coon pieces zipped around the basketball web on Thursday, opening plenty of eyes, even among those of us who have been paying attention all along. The league will be disrobed by a skeptical fan base that watched Wall Street burn Main Street to the ground and get away with it. We are a cynical people, we hate being lied to above all else (ask Anthony Weiner) and we're not going to gobble up the bulls--t that comes out of Secaucus.
Whether a skeptical, unamused public matters is, of course, another question entirely. David Stern has not exactly made a career out of pleasing the league's fans. As Charles Pierce wrote on Thursday: "David Stern knows who pays his salary." They -- the team owners -- pay Stern to make their bulls--t believable; in their other businesses, they pay other people to do the same thing. In the old days, the NBA was a hustle: teams had to be creative to get fans in the gym and to pay young stars despite crummy TV revenue and iffy gate receipts ... every fan counted, every dollar counted.
The NBA is still a hustle, but it's a hustle whose gargantuan size eclipses any individual fan, the fans as a collective or even Stern himself. The hustle isn't about goofy promotions or a 25-year contract for Magic Johnson. It's about 29 rich men trying to maximize profits for the next several decades in an unregulated, feudal industry in which their opponents -- the players -- have massive potential P.R. problems. This lockout is a scheme, plain and simple, to make more money for the foreseeable future. (Not just money. More money.) Everything the league has done points to that reality. To get their way, these 29 rich men and their appointed emperor are holding their entire operation hostage. Again. Because they didn't make enough money for themselves last time they pulled this stunt.
Perhaps there's no hope the labor battle will be resolved any time soon. But fans at the very least deserve to know that Stern and his crew are selling almost nothing but wolf tickets. Don't blame the players for refusing to buy them.