NBA commissioner David Stern rattled his sword this weekend, warning that if the players union doesn't accept the league's contract offer by the end of the month, there will be a lockout.
"If July 1 comes and there is a lockout, the union will have made a mistake of epic proportions," Stern said just before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, which was beaten in the TV ratings by "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
A rerun of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."
Now, in this world, there are mistakes, like the endless, boring pregame foofaraw that pushes NBA Finals tipoffs to around 9:15 p.m. EDT by providing entertainment and analysis that precisely nobody would rather watch than basketball.
There are epic mistakes, like the NHL lockout.
And then there are mistakes so mind-bogglingly stupid that they bend the very fabric of time and space with their idiocy. An NBA lockout would be one of those. Stern underestimated. And he also forgot to include himself and the team owners he works for in assigning blame.
The NBA has its problems, most notably its inability to draw eyeballs to TV screens if the Los Angeles Lakers aren't playing. The league looked preposterous this week when it tried to spin the low ratings for Game 1 as being higher than "the last non-Lakers Finals Game 1," meaning two years ago, when the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets met in the lowest-rated series since "Pink Lady and Jeff."
The fault for that inability lies partly in the defense-oriented play that's dominated the league over the last decade or so -- and still does, this year's Phoenix Suns notwithstanding -- and partly in the penny-wise, pound-foolish TV deals that have essentially turned the NBA into a cable television product, which even today pushes it out of the mainstream.
But more important than apportioning blame is dealing with the issues at hand, and the big issue at the moment is not TV ratings but the collective bargaining agreement. The last time the contract came up, in 1998, a lockout wiped out more than a third of the season.
And if the NBA's collective memory is too short to remember that, it only has to cast its mind back a year or so and recall the NHL, a hockey league with which it used to share several buildings.
You look puzzled. OK, a reminder: The NHL was a struggling professional league in the United States and Canada that locked out its players last September, sending a shock wave through our culture on par with when Kajagoogoo broke up.
Representatives of the NHL owners and players have been meeting lately and there are rumors they're getting close to a deal that would allow for the 2005-06 season to be played. In response, sports fans across the continent have been heard to shout, "Honey, the 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' rerun is starting!"
The NHL was at an impasse over a hard salary cap. The owners wouldn't accept any deal without one. The players offered all sorts of salary rollbacks but wouldn't negotiate on the cap issue.
The NBA has no such divide. It already has a salary cap, and it seems to be working fine. Salaries are high and getting higher -- the average is $4.5 million -- butts are in the seats and team values are appreciating.
The league and the players are merely bickering over details, differences over the maximum length of player contracts, relatively minor changes in the cap and luxury tax systems, stricter drug testing and a minimum age.
I don't mean to underplay. These are real differences that have to be worked out at the bargaining table. That's what negotiators do. They sit down, give a little, take a little, hammer out a deal.
When there are no fundamental money issues dividing the two sides, they don't go nuclear, or hold press conferences threatening to go nuclear, over issues like this. And they certainly don't do so on the eve of the championship series, especially one that's going to struggle to capture fans' attention.
The Flyover Finals need all the help they can get. They don't need Stern making off-the-court headlines, especially headlines that discourage fans from paying attention.
When I wrote last year that people shouldn't ignore an exciting Calgary-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Finals just because the Flames and Lightning weren't marquee teams, I was flooded with e-mails from readers saying they weren't watching because they knew the league was about to shut down, so screw it.
Nice work giving fans one more reasons to tune out the Pistons and the Spurs, Commish.
I think highly of David Stern. I think he's smart and thoughtful and that he respects both players and fans. But he's already presided over one work stoppage, as has union chief Billy Hunter. Even baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who I think is a boob, was smart enough to avoid having a second work stoppage on his watch.
Stern is right, in his understating way, that allowing a lockout would be a "mistake of epic proportions" by Hunter and the union. Given the relatively minor issues that separate the two sides and the at-hand example of the charred crater where the NHL used to be, an NBA work stoppage now would be a colossal blunder.
It would be a blunder that should cost Hunter his job and put Stern right next to him on the unemployment line.
If you can't be smarter than the NHL, you have to start over.
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