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Can David Stern Convince His Extremists To End NBA Lockout?

The NBA lockout is suddenly looking a lot like the recent debt ceiling debacle. Can David Stern reign in his flank more effective than John Boehner did?

If the NBA lockout appears to be taking a turn familiar to those who follow American politics, it is because it is taking that turn. Consider the narrative laid bare: there is a very important issue with a fuzzy but strict deadline approaching. It is in everyone's best interest to find a solution well before the deadline. One side has been willing to compromise. The other has leadership that appears ready to compromise ... but some holdout extremists unwilling to budge. As a result, we limp to the brink.

The lockout looks a lot like the debt ceiling debate of July and early August. In that fight, President Obama -- even though the Republicans had in a way created the issue from cloth -- was willing to compromise and bring concessions to the negotiating table. The Republican leadership appeared willing to do the same. But a segment of Republicans -- the Tea Party -- refused to budge, making things quite a bit harder for Speaker John Boehner. Eventually, brinksmanship led us to the weekend before the deadline, and an imperfect, hasty deal which (in the end) looked more conservative than the conservative's initial plan did.

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In the NBA, the players' union has made the largest concession to date (even though the owners called the lockout), offering to drop their split of revenue from 57 percent to a reported 52-53 percent, and reportedly agreeing to cap players' aggregate salary at $2.1 billion for two years. These are major concessions. In response, so far the ownership has responded with ... nothing. A condition of the salary concessions was that the salary cap structure would remain the same. While the league also wanted a hard cap to go with the salary concessions, drawing $200 million in annual saving from the players before losing a single game is a pretty major item worth negotiating out. David Stern seemed ready to bargain. A set of owners took three hours out of a bargaining session with the union to discuss a response to the players' proposal.

And the result, thanks to a reported two owners who remain zealous in their quest for a hard cap: no dice. Not negotiable.

Stern circled the wagons on Thursday with the full set of owners, and reportedly has clearance to negotiate every point of a new deal ... including the hard cap. But the Cavaliers' Dan Gilbert and Suns' Robert Sarver made it clear who they are in this analogy: they are the Michele Bachmanns. They are the extremists refusing to budge. They are the true believers.

Except Sarver at least is far less noble than Bachmann and the Tea Party. The right wing convinced itself -- or made it look convincing enough that it had convinced itself -- that raising the debt limit was a bad idea, and those who felt that way held their flag high. There was no hiding from the position. There was no shame in being the folks who were putting America on the edge of financial peril, and the world on the verge of economic collapse. No shame at all. They made a point to make their opposition known.

Sarver, meanwhile, is hiding. He knows he's the bad guy. He knows he'll never be forgiven if his hard-line stance contributes to the loss of games. Consider that ESPN's Dave McMenamin initially reported that it was Gilbert and Sarver who blocked negotiation on Tuesday after the players presented their idea. By late Saturday, ESPN's Chris Broussard was singing a different tune, citing anonymous sources who called Sarver a "dove" when it comes to lockout negotiatons. (That laughter you hear is everyone who pays attention to this stuff reacting to that news.) Sarver knows he's on the wrong side of history in threatening to block a deal that can save the season. And he's running from that. He's hiding from his own reflection in the mirror.

What a cowardly thing to do, supposing that I'm reading all of this correctly.

But here's where we're saved: Stern is a (far) more effective leader than Boehner, and in the end he won't let his league be held hostage by lily-livered billionaire bankers, not with the ratings soaring and the next class of superstars developing. If Stern likes what he hears from the union, and he can convince the owners less greedy than Sarver and Gilbert to sign on, he can get a deal done before games are missed. He won't be bullied like Boehner was, and the league will be better off for it. And maybe -- just maybe -- if the pressure in Arizona gets loud enough, Sarver will actually change his mind instead of pretending to do so. No one likes to be hated, and unlike the Tea Party, the lockout hawks don't have a red-blooded constituency rooting them on. It's a lonely world for the lockout extremists, and once Stern leaves them in the cold they'll have no one but themselves to agree with. Here's to hoping that happens sooner rather than later.


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