NBA Lockout: Commish, Nix the Nuclear Winter Rhetoric

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It’s well  before dawn. Our tuxedo cat Donald has awakened me, per usual, begging for food. On ESPN’s season-opening marathon of college hoops, Hawaii is putting it to Cal State Northridge. Drexel and Rider are about to tip. It’s Day 138 of the NBA lockout.

Yesterday on Day 137, after leadership of the NBA Players Association rejected the league’s “final” offer, the group decided to disband and said it plans to file an antitrust suit against the league. NBA commissioner Dave Stern retorted “we are about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA.”

Guess what? The sun is going to come up today and for the foreseeable future.

Would I miss the NBA, if the sides ultimately elect to airball all of the 2011-12 campaign - and beyond? Yes, for both professional and personal reasons. Every season, there are any number of compelling marketing, Nielsen and license fee stories, at both the national and regional sports networks level.

And pro hoops has been my favorite sport since I began listening to Marv Albert call the exploits of Clyde and Willis on Knicks games on the radio and Dr. J was soaring for the ABA Nets and eliciting Dave Zinkoff’s inimitable intonation — “From! The University Of Mazzachushetts, number six, Captain of the Philadelphia 76ers Julius… The Doctor… Errrrrrrrrrving!!” at the Spectrum. What Dirk and his crew in Big D did to LeCon and the Heatles on ABC last June was certainly extraordinary and could serve as the league’s lasting image for a while — or in the winter of Stern’s nuclear discontent, perhaps forever.

But the lockout litany and language have grown too long and laborious. Why can’t the sides just figure out how to equitably divvy up the $4 billion in basketball related income — hardly the stuff of plantation owners and wages — that emanates from guys bouncing a ball and shooting it through a rim. That’s something millions do, obviously not nearly as well as Kobe and company, for sheer fun and enjoyment.

Don’t the owners and the players know that the international debt crises are ruining 401K plans back in the States, that the economy sucks? That in real life, workers face the full court press of salary rollbacks, freezes, job cuts and a national unemployment rate that has stagnated in the 9% range? What about the regular guys working the parking lots across from Conseco, Staples and MSG? They ain’t getting any green back from all the games missed so far — and to come. Ushers aren’t directing people to their seats on what would have been game night. And bartenders, who would have been serving up drinks and pocketing tips from people watching NBA games, are going dry.

They should have decertified long ago, cry players like Nets guard Derron Williams, who has plied his hardcourt trade in Turkey. The players gave, gave and caved, agreeing to reduce their share of BRI from 57%, 53% 52.5% and finally 50%. But those greedy owners, like the tax man in Creedence’s “Fortunate Son,” just want more, more, more. Management only budged somewhat on mid-level exceptions, wanted to clip part of the Bird rights, and was looking to rewrite the playbook on sign-and-trades. Don’t accept this proposal, and the offer is reverting to 47% of BRI, with salary rollbacks galore.

MJ has become Abe Pollin. You can’t afford the Charlotte Bobcats? Go make some more commercials for Nike and Hanes, big guy. Blazer owner Paul Allen — the Forbes favorite, former Charter boss and the possessor of more than a few Jimi Hendrix guitars — is now a small-market player, too. Cablevision CEO and Knicks boss Jimmy Dolan has been described as a voice of reason throughout much of the failed-negotiating proceedings.

Of course, disbanding the union is just an irresponsible negotiating ploy, according to Stern, who says we were so close, that the players blew it up. Hunter says the collective bargaining process has just completely broken down. Stern hates Jeffrey Kessler, the lead attorney for the now-defunct NBAPA, who loathes the commissioner. Esteemed counsel David Boies, whose case load has included Al Gore’s presidential recount gambit and working with management during this summer’s NFL lockout, is on court now, so don’t worry, he won’t let the shot clock run out.

There could have been a 72-game season. Enough millions to go around for most. Go see where you can make that kind of money without a college degree. Sans paychecks, the repo man may come calling for the players’ Ferraris. And what’s a posse to do during nuclear winter?

You know, the owners just want to make the game more competitive. The new proposed 10-year deal — with a player opt-out after six, when new national TV contracts would kick in — was designed to save management from spending beyond their means. There was going to be an amnesty clause for the Gilbert Arenas and Eddie Currys of the world.

What about Stern’s legacy, or Hunter’s next job? We’re also looking out for all of the players coming after us? Don’t you think the next generations of would-be pro ballers are now going to have seriously consider the economic certainties provided by toiling on the gridiron or diamond?

According to Sports Illustrated, ESPN’s college hoops ratings leaped 22% during the 1998-99 NBA lockout. The other paying national cable carrier TNT has said it will rely on other primetime fare to fill the NBA GRP gap. The declines in advertising will be offset by reduced, refunded rights fees. Regional sports networks will be impacted more. They’ll forfeit ad buys/sponsorships tied directly to their NBA clubs and will have to revise their schedules with more classic contests, college hoops and other replacement programming. They may — repeat, may — even have to refund a portion of their license fees to distributors. RSN refunds to subscribers for not presenting a significant part of their offerings? Don’t expect to see a credit entry on this (or next) month’s cable bill.

Maybe more people will watch NHL games. They’ll tune in original series on the premium channels, on USA Network, FX, AMC — or perhaps even NBC. How about these alternatives to an NBA-free world: reading, going to the gym, playing with the kids, talking to the wife. Life is already going on without the league.

But soon the NBA negotiations will be in the hands of antitrust lawyers and judges. The union’s disbanding play will expedite things in a way that decertification couldn’t hope to. Somehow, this will be just the ticket to push the parties back to the negotiating table. The fail-safe button can still be hit. Remember the 1998-99 lockout, they got things together in early January — just in time to salvage a 50-game season.

At that stage, it really would be winter. Just not a nuclear one.