Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 24, 2011

Time’s Running Out, But NBA’s Likely To Beat The Buzzer

Last year I spent Thanksgiving weekend in New York City, where among other entertainments I took in a game between the Knicks and the Atlanta Hawks. Madison Square Garden is a fine venue for our indoor sports, and that Knicks team showed signs of promise. Off-season acquisition Amar’e Stoudemire was the team leader, and he would be joined three months after my visit by four-time All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony and veteran point guard Chauncey Billups. The Knicks made the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons last year while recording their first winning record in a decade. After years of frustration, the fans who regularly made their way to “the most famous arena on earth” finally had reason to look forward with hope to the next campaign.

But one year later on another Thanksgiving weekend those fans, like their brethren in Boston, Miami, Dallas, L.A., and every other NBA city, are still waiting for this season to begin. On dates originally reserved for basketball, Madison Square Garden and all of the other NBA arenas have been shuttered and dark. Unable to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement, owners locked out the players on July 1st. Nearly five months later the two sides have moved closer together; or more accurately, the players have grudgingly acceded to most of the owners’ demands.

Still the pre-season and all regular season games through December 15th have already been lost, and a final agreement is not yet at hand. The most recent talks ended in bitterness and acrimony two weeks ago when the players rejected an ultimatum to accept the offer then on the table or face something even less favorable to their interests. On November 14th the players dissolved their union and filed two antitrust lawsuits, calling the lockout an illegal group boycott. The Knicks’ Anthony and Billups were two of the 14 named player-plaintiffs. As Americans sat down to plates heaped with turkey and dressing and the ever-delectable annual serving of green bean casserole, even a partial NBA season hung by a thread.

Which is why it was hopeful but not terribly surprising when word came on Tuesday that negotiations between owners and players had quietly resumed. Hopeful, because while it is possible to resolve the current standoff through the courts, that route guarantees there will be no 2011-12 NBA season. Earlier this week the players consolidated their two lawsuits, which had been filed in California and Minnesota, into a single action in the latter federal district court. One of the stated reasons for this was the fact that the Minnesota docket is less crowded and the federal court there has a history of moving cases along fairly swiftly. But in that less crowded and swiftly moving arena no date for any kind of preliminary hearing has been set. Meanwhile David Boies, lead counsel for the players, indicated he thought it possible to get a decision in perhaps three months. Even if one made the absurd assumption that the side which lost at the District Court level didn’t appeal, a decision rendered in late February would be far too late to piece together any semblance of a season. Unless Commissioner David Stern, 30 team owners and more than 400 players want to risk permanent fan enmity by losing an entire season, the only available route to a settlement is through negotiation, not litigation.

Not terribly surprising for a couple of reasons, the first of which is the simple fact that all of the parties are acutely aware of the reality of the calendar outlined above. The players’ lawsuit provides them with some useful leverage, what with the theoretical possibility of a treble damages award. Even if remote, that possibility will help to focus the owners’ attention. At the same time, the players all missed their first paycheck earlier this month; an average $220,000 not directly deposited into their bank accounts. A lost season would ultimately cost both sides an estimated $2 billion, a figure that represents many, many, many reasons to get a deal done.

The second reason movement now is not surprising also has to do with the calendar. Both sides agree that once an agreement is reached, it will take about a month before a shortened regular season can begin. The union will need to reconstitute itself, the agreement has to be ratified, and there has to be a period for free agency and training camps before the first tip-off in a meaningful game. While all of that is going on league computers will be busy sorting out and organizing a new schedule.

It can be rightly said that the NFL owns Thanksgiving Day, what with the traditional home loss by the Detroit Lions followed by a game in Dallas and, of more recent vintage, a third night game broadcast on the NFL network. But Christmas Day is the property of the NBA. It is the day on which the league’s national television contract kicks in with high-profile matchups between teams with national followings. This year’s schedule leads off with a high noon showdown at Madison Square Garden between the Celtics and the Knicks, to be broadcast on ESPN. That’s to be followed by a doubleheader on ABC; with the first game reprising last spring’s playoff finals between the Mavericks and the Heat, followed by the Lakers hosting the Bulls. Those three marquee games, broadcast into millions of homes after the presents have been opened and while fans are in a presumably relieved and forgiving mood, are powerful incentives on both sides to act now. Because this is likely the last weekend by which those games, and their broadcasts, can be saved.

Owners and players alike have peered over the precipice, into the abyss of a lost season. The contrast of that view with the image of those Christmas Day games has to be stark. Of course even smart people can do stupid things, but don’t be surprised if in the next few days we learn that the “nuclear winter” that Commissioner Stern proclaimed was at hand just two weeks ago has magically been avoided. There will doubtless be those who will point out that the new contract is one that could have been had weeks or even months ago, and they will be correct. But then you know the old saying about the NBA; it seems like the games always come down to the last few minutes.

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