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NBA lockout will divide players
Posted: Wednesday November 04, 1998 10:52 AM
The best news NBA owners could have received is that hardly anybody has even noticed that the league cancelled the first weeks of the season. This sounds like a putdown of pro basketball. In fact, it simply has to do with the calendar and history.
Who knows when the NBA season is supposed to start? Dr. Naismith famously invented basketball as a wintertime diversion, but, a century later there really is no defined basketball time. So what's the rush to settle when the sport has become an endless year-round activity, like movies or campaign fundraising.
By contrast, the start of the baseball and football seasons is a set part of our cultural calendar. Opening Day baseball is synonymous with springtime; the start of the football season heralds a return to school. When strikes have threatened these benchmarks, it is as if the Grinch has come to disturb the schedule of our very own lives. How dare football do this to me! Strike baseball? Why, you might as well shoot down all those swallows coming back to Capistrano.
But basketball has never been so much a part of the rhythm of our everyday existence. In fact, it has prospered, proudly, primarily as glitzas show business. This makes it all the more appropriate that the current dispute is about, essentially, how much the biggest stars can be paid over and above the split in revenues that the league and the union pretty much agree on.
There's a fascinating emotional conflict here, too. I've always felt that fans are not so upset by how much money players make, as they are disturbed by the fact that their beloved heroes play so fast and loose with our affectionschanging teams so blithely, abandoning us fans who love them. Everybody recognizes, too, that ideally all leagues are better off when the biggest stars stay put, lending stability, a more lasting identity. The fact that Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan each played with only one team matters.
Indeed, it was for that greater good that the NBA instituted what became known as "the Larry Bird exception"allowing franchises to ignore the salary cap when it came to keeping a special, great player. Jordan earned $33 million last year because of that provision. But the definition of a Larry Bird has been defined down, putting pressure on home teams to pay anything to keep a staror, even, a prospective star.
The teams say: Stop us before we spend too much. The players say: Any statutory limit on salary is downright un-American. For now, the stars and their agents have convinced the run-of-the-mill players, the ones who only make two or three million a year, that it is in their best interests that someone like, say, Patrick Ewinga fine player, but one without any box-office appeal whatsoeverdraws down $18.5 million.
So, as long as there is no public hue-and-cry to settle the dispute, the pressure would seem to grow on the players' solidarity. How long will the journeymen support the struggle to pay a handful of stars monstrous millions of dollars? Ironically, recently in sports, it is the owners who have suffered because of a split between the rich and poor franchises. This time, it is the players who most risk division along class lines.
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