David Stern is the linebacker who slams the ballcarrier to the turf and then politely picks him up and pats him on the butt. He's the pool hustler who cleans out his victim's wallet and then gives him cab fare home. That's essentially what Stern, the NBA commissioner, did to the National Basketball Players Association last week when he gave the desperate union a few face-saving concessions to forge an agreement, ending the 191-day labor dispute and salvaging an abbreviated season that will start on Feb. 5. He allowed the union to keep its dignity but took almost everything else.
After the settlement on Jan. 6, Stern insisted that Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' association, had forced him to give up more than he wanted. Stern also implied that he'd had to explain himself to those owners who wondered why he hadn't gotten a better deal. He wasn't just being magnanimous; he was being, as always, shrewd. Stern knows he needs the cooperation of the union to win back the fans and that it would serve no useful purpose to give even the slightest appearance of rubbing it in.
But even if he doesn't want to publicly admit it, Stern won a landmark victory. He made the NBA the only one of the four major pro leagues to have a maximum salary. He rendered agents, such as his nemesis, David Falk, unable to drive bidding wars for their clients into the stratosphere. He made it possible for teams to hold on to their draft choices for five years—two years longer than under the past collective bargaining agreement—before those players become unrestricted free agents. There's little wonder that one team president said there was "dancing on the tables" when Stern laid out the deal to the owners.
The only way the new agreement won't turn out to be a slam-dunk, hang-from-the-rim, chest-bumping triumph for Stern and his employers will be if the fans don't come back. But they will—even if Michael Jordan doesn't. This season will be a 50-game act of contrition in which the NBA will take the flogging it so richly deserves from the public. The fans are to be congratulated for their apathy during the lockout; it was precisely the right emotion. Ranting and raving would only have contributed to the belief of too many in both labor and management that the league is indispensable to the public. But now the wining and dining of the fans begins. The NBA didn't cancel a postseason, as baseball did. It didn't wipe out an entire schedule. In the end, less than half a season (and the inconsequential half, at that) was lost. It's a measure of the state of sports today that that seems a very forgivable sin.
Stern won, then, which was no surprise; he almost always does. That's why the owners had the good sense for the last six months to keep their mouths shut and let him work. While the players were talking too much—first putting their hightops in their mouths with ludicrous comments that showed how out of touch they are with the average fan and then hurting the union's cause by revealing how desperate they were to settle—the owners let Stern be their voice. It's true that they had a gag order with the threat of a six-figure fine hanging over their heads, but these are wealthy, powerful men. The fear of writing a check didn't keep them quiet. Confidence in Stern did.
The confidence was well-placed. Stern waited patiently while his greatest ally, time, worked for him. He and the owners clearly felt that the players would get fidgety and push Hunter and union president Patrick Ewing to make a deal. The union may have surprised them by staying unified as long as it did, but eventually Stern's strategy worked.
The endgame began around Christmas, when it became obvious that the union's resolve was crumbling. The players were beginning to grumble about the prospect of losing the season, and some of their agents were pressuring Hunter to settle. Tensions came to a head in New York City on Jan. 5 when the players started to arrive for a meeting the next day at which they would take a pivotal vote, deciding whether to go against the recommendation of the union's negotiating committee and accept what the owners had called their final proposal.
It promised to be a divisive session. Stars Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Jayson Williams and Anthony Mason were prepared to demand a secret-ballot vote, and other players seemed ready to break ranks with the union and go back to work no matter what the results of the vote were. "I came to play basketball," said Orlando Magic swingman Nick Anderson. "I was going to play with five people or with 500 people. No matter what, I was going to play."
Before his power base crumbled any further, Hunter knew what he had to do: On the night of Jan. 5 he called Stern and said, "Do you want to talk?" Stern replied, "I'd love to talk." What he could have said was "Checkmate."
By early the next morning Stern had closed the deal, rewarding his owners' faith with an agreement that will save them from their own profligate tendencies. Under the agreement the maximum salary in the first year of a new contract will be $14 million, and only players who have been in the league for at least 10 seasons will be eligible to earn that much. There will be no more six-year, $126 million deals for 21-year-old players like the one the Minnesota Timberwolves gave Kevin Garnett 16 months ago. With a wage scale for players' first four years in the league and salary ceilings of $9 million for those with six years of experience or less and $11 million for those with between seven and nine years in the league, the influence of agents will also be greatly diminished. A seventh-year player's new contract, for instance, will pay no more than $11 million in the first year; it doesn't matter whether his agent is David Falk or Peter Falk.