A camera, a chair and David Stern could save the NBA season
Secrecy, an inability to communicate have plagued an already-tense labor dispute
The owners have been selfish; the players have been woefully unorganized
Against this backdrop, Stern needs to take a risk and exert some leadership
Here is the last, best hope for the NBA.
A small, empty ballroom is rented in a New York hotel. A single chair and a single television camera are placed in the center of the room. Commissioner David Stern sits in the chair.
He invites any current NBA player, owner or union -- excuse me, trade association -- representative to visit him.
They will come, trust me. They will come and they will talk to Stern, and maybe the 2011-12 season and the NBA can be saved from self-destruction.
The TV camera is vital. Nothing can happen without the eye and ear of the camera. Anyone will be able to hear everything that is said, because all of the conversations will be broadcast live and without interruption on NBA TV and streamed on NBA.com.
These will not be anything like the secretive, cynical negotiations that have conspired for the last two-and-a-half years to doom the NBA. Instead, these will be constructive conversations conducted by people who wish to rescue their league. Nothing official, nothing binding, and nothing more than a quiet attempt to find salvation.
Stern will be available in the room from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, with an hour for lunch. "I am here to talk,'' he will say. "Let us talk about what is keeping us apart.''
This is not a whimsical, wouldn't-it-be-nice suggestion I am making here. No, this is an entirely serious and necessary response to a crisis of the NBA's own making. A season of basketball is on the verge of cancellation because the owners and players are failing to communicate with each other. Most of the owners and most of the players want no part of this destruction. They have to be wondering how in the name of Bill Russell did it ever get to this point.
The problem has been secrecy, which has been forming in layer upon suffocating layer.
The secrecy began with Stern's edict that no owner or management employee speak one word publicly of the negotiations. That order was meant to encourage ownership to speak with a single voice through Stern. But the goal of unity has backfired. The gag order has encouraged some owners to engage in selfish negotiations, so that the richest of them pursue their needs and the less-rich -- the so-called small-market owners -- hold out for the needs of their own. They have been invited to indulge themselves at the expense of the NBA because they are not being held accountable for their self-indulgences. Secrecy has brought out the worst in them.
The union -- excuse me, the trade association -- has engaged in its own corrupting secrecy and disorganization. Most players didn't have access to the NBA's "final'' proposal until a leaked copy was published in full by USA Today the night before the crucial meeting of player representatives Monday.
In that meeting, which was meant to decide whether the proposal should be put to a vote of the full membership, each of the 30 NBA teams was supposed to be represented by a player. As reported by my colleague Sam Amick, three teams had no representative at the meeting. Other representatives failed to contact their teammates or lacked the understanding of the proposal that was necessary to engage their teammates in the debate. Therefore a large number of players wound up having little or no say in the decision that was made to abruptly end the negotiations, disband the union and file a lawsuit against the NBA.
In addition, any player who wished to attend the meeting was invited to have a say in its outcome. In other words, this was the kind of democracy where you had a vote as long as you happened to live in New York or were willing to pay your way to get there. But if you happened to be an NBA player anywhere other than New York, well, too bad for you.
If a different group of players had just so happened to be in New York on Monday, might a different decision have been reached?
Here are a couple of questions even more damning: If the players had communicated among themselves in an organized way in the days leading up to that meeting, might they have voted to ratify the proposal? Or might they -- with a unified voice some 450 strong -- have been able to force the owners back to the bargaining table?
This is where the players simply don't get it. They accuse the owners of bullying. But the players invite the bullying. The players encourage owners to bully them because the owners fully recognize that the union -- sorry, the trade association -- is disorganized and thereby prone to manipulation. Every individual NBA player demands respect because he is one of the best in the world at his sport. But as a 450-member team, the NBA players are to unity what the Timberwolves have been to team basketball lately. Just as you may respect the Timberwolves' individual talent but laugh about their play as a team, so too do the owners respect the talents of NBA players but openly laugh about their dysfunctional leadership.
The players ought to be furious at themselves for their failure to organize. Consider the fact that the administrative leadership of this trade association went through a similar work stoppage in 1998-99, and yet, with two years to prepare for the current lockout, failed to take the steps necessary to improve its teamwork.
If the players had been organized and unified, would the owners have dared to demand so many concessions? Probably not, especially since the owners are themselves fragmented.
So here the NBA finds itself today, with back-room owners who don't respect the players as a group, and players who, for lack of any better option at this late date, have put their faith in lawyers and an unprecedented lawsuit, which, if ultimately successful, would bankrupt the owners and put the NBA out of business.
This is why David Stern needs to sit in a chair and make himself available.
He needs to show humility. He needs to lower his voice and listen, in hopes that others eventually will do the same. The NBA is about to die for lack of leadership, and Stern needs to show it. He needs to make himself vulnerable for the sake of his league.
If some of his owners don't want him to engage in so public a spectacle, then they can fire him. Let them try. He is 69 and it's not like he needs the money. What he needs -- and what his owners need, whether they realize it or not -- is to rescue the league that he has been building since he became general counsel in 1978, when the players were enormously unpopular and the owners were threatened by insolvency. All of the gains Stern has generated over the last three decades are now at risk.
So now he must put himself at risk. There is a chance that no player will come to see him. Maybe he will sit in a room by himself and his camera all day. Maybe people will laugh at the old man, sitting there alone.
More than anything, I think he will be respected for attempting to find another way. He will be putting himself at risk for a cause larger than himself. Some will laugh, but others will admire the attempt, succeed or fail.
The trade association may try to prevent players from participating, but players will come. The lawyers have no right to dictate a gag order because the lawyers are being paid by the players.
Players will come to New York to have it out with Stern, and anyone who cares to watch will be able to hear everything that is said. There won't be any secret agendas any longer. There will be arguments and misunderstandings, but the public nature of the conversations -- thanks to the unblinking TV camera -- will force all parties to pursue the higher ground. As the discussion evolves, there will be less talk about individual needs and more about the needs of the league. Why will the NBA be better if the players have more access to free agency? Why will the NBA be better if the Los Angeles Lakers are prevented from outspending by 2-1 the Sacramento Kings?
This is the only way to create a new era for the NBA. The owners and players need more than a new agreement. They need to share an understanding and respect for each other in order to grow their business. The only way to escape the hole in which they are threatening to bury themselves is for them to begin to talk. They must do so informally and transparently, without protocol, in pursuit of mutual respect.
The system of negotiating a new collectively bargained agreement is broken and there is no time to fix it. In sympathy with the movement to "Occupy Wall Street,'' the NBA must, in effect, occupy itself. Day after day, week after week, it must engage in the kind of reasonable and constructive dialogue that has been ravaged by the old, corrupted system. If some of the broadcast language turns out to be unsuitable for children, then such is the small price of democracy.
The important thing is that the conversations go through Stern. Owners and players will speak one after the other, on live TV, to the commissioner. Stern will serve as both moderator and mediator. He will say things that some people won't like, but everything said by him and everyone else will be on the record. Eventually the difference between good ideas and bad ideas will become obvious. Patience will be encouraged and rewarded. Everyone who cares enough to come will have the chance to ask questions or share his opinion.
Maybe these conversations can do for the NBA what the Watergate hearings did for American government in the 1970s. The public nature of those hearings helped cleanse government of its secrecy because everything was said in full view of the public, and leaders were held accountable for what they believed in. The demands of the crisis and the transparency of the hearings inspired Republicans and Democrats to work together in order to rescue the country.
Maybe these conversations will gather their own momentum. Understandings will be shared. Good ideas will be generated. Eventually the give-and-take will draw the hard-liners on both sides from out of the shadows, afraid for these talks to go on without their input.
Maybe the framework of a new agreement will be built in time to save the season while restoring civility between the players and the owners.
By making this proposal, I am opening myself to accusations that I am a naive fool whose suggestion, like the NBA itself, is doomed.
But I can't help but ask: What is there to hide?
What is there to lose?
A camera, a chair and David Stern. It's not like he has anything better to do.