- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- Even as his league careens toward the most shameful work stoppage in the history of domestic sport, David Stern does seem to understand how the American people feel about all this.
I wish I could say the same for Billy Hunter.
The Commish admits there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that he'll be able to tell the country to rationalize the lockout that will shut down the NBA in less than three weeks ... barring an 11th-hour agreement no one expects.
Hunter? The head of the players' union reportedly canceled a scheduled trip to Game 2 of the Finals, sparing himself the task of trying to explain to the assembled media why he has turned down an offer that, according to Stern, reflects that the major concessions made in negotiations have been "mostly by the owners."
"I'm trying to find a way to make sense out of it," Stern said Sunday evening, after running through the various issues that have splintered the NBA and the union mere months after both sides watched the NHL -- a league whose financial footing and structure is far, far shakier -- cancel a whole season.
"The fact that we could explain [our reasoning] is not going to change the [public's] view that, in a time when the world seems to be pretty much on fire ... that we couldn't sit down and come up with a way to divide up the $3 billion a year of revenues that we are going to generate. It is incomprehensible and in some ways inexplicable, and I'm not looking forward it," Stern said.
The depressing labor address made it tough to get excited about the game that would follow, and Stern, fittingly, leaned his head back and appeared to be scratching his left eye out before he answered the question about what he plans to say to the people. He's undoubtedly aware that we're all right there with him in disgust, stunned that we're even talking lockout so soon after his hockey cousins vanished from the sporting landscape.
Because it really doesn't matter who's right here. The PR impact of the L word -- given the brawl in Detroit that started this season, what's happened since in the NHL and the aforementioned state of the world economy -- would be disastrous. Embarrassing, really. The sides should be doing anything they can -- together -- to avoid this path, and such sentiments apply even if a lockout is settled by early October, without delaying the start of training camps or costing the league any regular-season games.
I have some news for the players, which Hunter apparently hasn't passed along.
It won't matter if the union is 100 percent justified in rejecting an NBA offer that reduces the length of guaranteed contracts by only one year from the current limits ... and features a minimum draft age of 19 instead of the 20-year-old minimum Stern sought ... and guarantees the players 57 percent of basketball-related income, roughly the same as they get now.
It doesn't matter if the league is insisting on installing a more punitive luxury tax -- a so-called Super Tax that could further restrict player movement -- in exchange for agreeing to all of the above.
In the court of public opinion, fair or not, the players will always be painted as the guilty, greedy ones.
Even though the owners are often billionaires and the players mere millionaires, the public generally refuses to understand why athletes can't be happy with their work conditions.
It's not just basketball. The same thing happens in baseball and just happened in hockey, too.
Fair or not.
All of which suggests that the framework of the current proposal just might be worth taking.
And there's worse news. In my playoff travels through the Western Conference and now the Finals, I've yet to encounter a single player who feels the terms of their employment are so stifling that they need to stop working and hold out for better. I don't hear anyone passionately proclaiming a need to fight for the things Hunter is fighting for, veterans especially, and several I've spoken with don't seem to understand the issues. In short, most guys I've spoken to want to play and keep playing.
Which makes you wonder if Hunter's hubris, as much as anything, is why we're looking at a lockout.
Hunter is often portrayed as the overwhelming loser in his battles with Stern, so his recent hard-lining suggests that he's trying to undo that reputation now. But he'll have to explain what he isn't getting in this deal, since NBA owners originally hoped to shorten guaranteed contracts from seven and six -- seven years for free agents re-signing with their own teams and six for free agents switching teams -- to four and three. Stern said Sunday that he thought "we had a deal at five and five." The NBA has since improved its offer to six and five, which isn't much of a reduction at all.
I'd imagine most NBA players would love those terms, even if year-by-year raises are ultimately reduced.
Guess we'll see. Guess we'll see if common sense miraculously prevails between now and July 1.
All we know for sure at the minute is that Stern, assuming the lockout is as unavoidable as he makes it sound, won't be growing another one of his lockout beards.
"I'll spare you the beard this time," he said.
Not that America will be paying attention to Stern if the NBA and its players can't avoid this ridiculous work stoppage.
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