Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the players union have stalled six weeks shy of a possible lockout date. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik announced Wednesday that the league had broken off talks because a group of player agents had convinced the union to back off of tentative agreements on several key issues, especially maximum contract length.
Speaking to ESPN.com, union director Billy Hunter denied the charge that agents had such influence and called Granik's comments "repugnant and offensive" because "the inference is that me, as a black man, cannot operate an institution such as the union without having some white man oversee and legitimate whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing."
Here we go again.
Last month Jermaine O'Neal suggested that the league's desire for a minimum age "feels like" it has a racial element to it, because the teenagers being denied entry into the league would be overwhelmingly black.
Last week several observers, including me, suggested that Steve Nash might have gotten a few extra MVP votes -- which, it's important to note, are cast by the media, not by the league -- because he's white.
Now the African-American union leader says the league's white No. 2 man is suggesting he can't do his job without white men pulling his strings.
In all three cases, a compelling argument can be made that those making the charge are unfairly playing the race card, as the saying goes, where it's not warranted. And it's worth mentioning that both times the league has been accused of racial bias have been in the context of labor negotiations, a time when elbows tend to fly.
Still, at some point you have to wonder whether, with all this smoke, there's a little fire. I say that knowing I joined in on making a little of the smoke.
Hunter has an adversarial role and appeared angry Wednesday as he was interviewed in a hallway outside a Capitol hearing room where he was attending a session on steroids in sports. Aside from him, no one has been accusing the NBA of outright racism. This little flurry of racial talk has mostly been about subtle bias, the type of thing that's almost impossible to deny, but is also almost impossible to avoid.
It's easy enough to dismiss Hunter's outburst as race-baiting or negotiation strategy or the frustrated barking of a man who feels he's been insulted. Then again, you know what they say about a little smoke.
I wonder if this is an issue the NBA has to deal with, and keep dealing with, aggressively. Even if all we have is an epidemic of race-baiting, of unfairly playing the race card, that's still a problem that has to be addressed.
Maybe not this minute. Getting a new CBA in place by the June 30 expiration and avoiding a possible work stoppage has to be the top priority.
But once that's done I think the NBA has to come up with some way to deal with what appears to be an ongoing problem -- even if it's only one of perception.
It's not enough to say, "Look at all our black coaches and executives." It's not enough that David Stern, a great commissioner and a thoughtful man, doesn't really seem like the kind of guy who wants to keep the black folks in their place.
To be honest I have no idea what it is I think the NBA should do. I guess we can talk about it some more the next time someone accuses the league of racial bias. Judging by these past six weeks, that won't be long.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Only one playoff: How civilized! [PERMALINK]
So this spring we have the NBA playoffs but not the NHL, and maybe next spring we'll have the NHL and not the NBA.
That's making a couple of big assumptions -- that the NHL will get a deal done by next season and the NBA won't. But as the mental picture presented itself Wednesday, I couldn't help smiling. I'd miss the NBA playoffs a lot. But it sure is civilized not having the NHL and NBA tournaments going on at the same time.
I realize not everyone feels obligated to watch every. Stinkin'. Playoff. Game. The wife, for example, finds that the viewing of playoff basketball or hockey improves her life not one little bit, and may even be harmful. "Why are the playoffs still going?" she asks every year.
Around May Day.
But I have a job to do and an interest to feed, so I try to watch them all. And this year, without two hockey games going on at the same time two basketball games are being played every night, it's actually been possible. Sometimes, such as Wednesday night, when only one game was played, it's been easy.
And then there was Monday night, when not a single playoff game was played. I had dinner with my family. In a restaurant. I went to bed at the same time as the wife, who turned to me as I settled into my pillow and whispered sweetly in my ear, "What was your name again?"
I'm cautiously optimistic that the NHL will get its sorry act together in time for a 2005-06 season, and I think the NBA can avoid a work stoppage. The current CBA was reached after a lockout wiped out more than a third of the 1998-99 season, but there were huge issues at stake that time as the owners wanted to impose a new economic structure, with salary caps and luxury and escrow taxes.
This time, there's no such monster issue. The business is reasonably healthy and the league and union appear to be wrestling over details. They also have the ridiculously obvious example of the NHL disaster to think about as they contemplate engaging in brinksmanship.
One thing this NHL-free playoff season has convinced me of, though, is that whenever the NHL comes back, it ought to arrange its schedule so that the Stanley Cup is decided by the third week of April so it doesn't overlap with the NBA playoffs.
The NHL playoffs are too great to be overshadowed by hoops, which is what happens every year in the U.S. except in a few cities. Backing everything up by about six weeks would give the NHL plenty of time in the spotlight during a mostly quiet time of the year, right after the Super Bowl.
It would have to compete with the NCAA Tournament, but that's only three weekends out of nine. And toward the end there would be the start of the baseball season, but the NHL playoffs have always competed with that.
Backing the season up to avoid conflict with the NBA playoffs might seem like a humiliating surrender, but if ever a league were in line to show a little humility, it's the NHL. And it's not as though having the Stanley Cup decided in April would be some kind of weird, tradition-breaking shift. The Stanley Cup Finals were played in April through the mid-'60s and only became a June event in the '80s.
My suggestion makes way too much sense to ever happen, but just to answer the question I know you're thinking of, there are two ways to deal with the end of the season coming six weeks early. As you might guess, my plan would be to shorten the regular season.
We could lop about 25 games off, leaving 57 -- though we can make it 55 or 60 if you'd like -- and have the Cup awarded by the time the NBA playoffs start. Or we could let the Finals overlap with the uninteresting first round of the NBA playoffs, which I wouldn't advise but it could save maybe 10 regular-season games.
The other way to do it would just be to back up the whole fandango six weeks. Start the season in the second week of August rather than the last week of September. If you can convince me it makes sense to play hockey in June but not August, you're a hell of an arguer.
Previous column: Reggie Miller, Malcolm Glazer
- - - - - - - - - - - -