Follow the Bouncing Ball

The rules of life don't change much. Never buy loose diamonds from a man in lizard-skin cowboy boots. Remain faithful to your beloved. At a mile and an eighth, always consider Eddie Delahoussaye's horse. Once past the age of twelve, never, ever request an autograph--not from John Elway, not from Sandra Bullock, not from God. Avoid cheap whiskey. Kiss your babies regularly. Keep your front shoulder in there against the inside curveball.

And let somebody else finance Carmen Electra's wedding trousseau.
The National Basketball Association lockout, or players' strike, or hostage crisis--whatever the hell they call it--is now in its 148th day. Seven weeks of the season have already been canceled, and the rest is in doubt. To hear the participants tell the story, this is a life-and-death struggle for the rights of man, something akin to the Battle of Stalingrad. If matters aren't resolved soon, we learn, Karl Malone won't be able to tip the servants at Christmas. Shaquille O'Neal may have to content himself with another six months behind the wheel of his ratty old 1998 Rolls-Royce. Such is the underlying moral issue at stake here.

The Knicks' Patrick Ewing, president of the NBA players' association, puts it this way: "We're fighting for our lives." Little matter that Ewing was one of the superstar players who in 1995 led an attempt to decertify the players' union.

Now, before basketball fans take to the streets waving banners, shaking their fists and singing the glories of solidarity, it wouldn't hurt to understand what Ewing means (this year, anyway) by "fighting for our lives." It's simple: The 410 or so players of the NBAPA want to take home 60 percent of the revenue generated by NBA games, while the team owners are offering 50 percent. Those revenues amount to some $2 billion each year. Your kid could do the arithmetic--as long as the calculator has enough digits.

For his part, Patrick Ewing earned $20.5 million in 1997-98--not including product endorsements. Is he fighting for his life? Struggling to improve his own dismal working conditions? Well, maybe. Computed on the basis of a six-day work week and a seven-month season, Ewing earned just $14,236.11 per hour last season. Try to make do on that and see if you don't turn into Mother Jones.

On the other hand, what passes for a "protracted labor dispute" in the world of professional sports--complete with its own arbitrators, lockout fund and ten-hour negotiating sessions--is really nothing more than a stubborn argument between millionaires and billionaires. About one-fifth of NBA players earned the league minimum last season--$272,250 for veterans, $242,000 for rookies--but the average salary was $2.2 million. The male American pro athlete is not a blue-collar worker like the poor fan who worships him. He's a rich man--no getting around it. So when he starts whining about how even wealthier men are ruining his life, it's not easy to listen sympathetically. And when he starts whining that the American public doesn't support the NBA players because they are predominantly black, the whole mess takes on a new layer of absurdity. Crying racism when the issue is greed--player greed and owner greed --is laughable.

By the way, the people who are already losing the most, proportionally speaking, from the NBA's non-season, really are working stiffs--the woman who takes Bulls season-ticket orders in Chicago, the guy who sells nachos in the rafters at Big Mac, the waitress in the nearby restaurant who depends on game-night tips to buy her son new blue jeans. A survey conducted last week revealed that the average NBA arena requires between 200 and 500 part-time workers to stage a single game, and that doesn't begin to take into account the lost revenues of businesses in the vicinity: In Cleveland, shops and services around Gund Arena are losing an estimated $1.9 million with the cancellation of each Cavaliers game; in Chicago, it's $8 million per lost Bulls crowd. Consider also the hundreds of millions of dollars in licensed NBA merchandise languishing on store shelves. Is there a fourteen-year-old in America willing to pay $19.95 for a Golden State Warriors sweatshirt? Don't count on it.

Even here in football-crazy Denver, the crunch can be felt. The hapless Nuggets may be one of the NBA's worst draws and least attractive products, but every saloon owner on Federal Boulevard and hotelier on the 16th Street Mall must be praying for the season to get under way--somehow, sometime. In the meantime, Fox Sports Rocky Mountain, bereft of actual NBA action, recently aired highlights from Nuggets history--the only highlights from Nuggets history, actually: The team's May 1994 playoff win over the top-ranked Seattle Supersonics, and the December 13, 1983, scorefest that required three overtimes to become the highest-scoring game in league history: Detroit 186, Denver 184.

While we were watching reruns, Kenny Anderson of the Boston Celtics made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of the common man: He sold one of the eight luxury cars in his garage.

Clearly, pro basketball learned nothing from the bitter baseball strike that resulted in the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Thanks to the magnetism of Larry Bird (in whose name one of the hottest mini-issues of contract dispute is being fought) and Magic Johnson, NBA hoops rose from the grave to become the hip pro sport of the 1980s and early 1990s, and NBA commissioner David Stern was hailed as a marketing genius. But who's to say it won't take even longer for the NBA to regain the affections of its fans than baseball did? It took four years, a suspiciously lively baseball and a slugger with tree-trunk arms for the grand old game to regain a foothold. What will basketball have to do? Preserve Michael Jordan in a cryogenic freezer? Let Dennis Rodman play in a ball gown and pumps? For now, sales of college basketball tickets have risen dramatically, along with the volume of the public grumble.

For their part, the NBA players have recently mounted one of the most peculiar public-relations campaigns in recent memory--suddenly signing autographs for the fans they've ignored for years, staging union pep rallies in that bastion of proletarian principle, Las Vegas, and, just in case we've forgotten whose interests are being served here, threatening to boycott NBC and Turner Sports, the two TV networks that will pay the NBA nearly $480 million in guaranteed broadcast fees this year--whether or not Nick Van Exel ever takes a jump shot.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Stern has busied himself blaming a pair of high-powered player agents, David Falk and Arn Tellem, for breakdowns in the labor talks. Critics say Stern simply wants to divide the players (who are already divided by disparate salaries) from their agents, but it's clear that Falk and Tellem, who represent more than seventy NBA players, don't want the union to sign a deal that would benefit the mass of players but curtail superstar salaries. In the end, you can't help suspecting that Stern would rather remain friends with the Michael Jordans and Patrick Ewings of the world than with their highly paid factotums. So in the heat of battle, he trashes them.

Don't bother feeling too sorry for the scapegoats. In recent weeks, Tellem has lost the accounts of bad boy Latrell Sprewell, Kendall Gill, Phoenix Suns free agent (and ex-Nugget) Antonio McDyess and Charlotte Hornets rookie Ricky Davis. Not to worry. He also represents free-agent slugger Albert Belle, who is likely to remain one of the five highest-paid players in baseball when he signs a new contract, and Tellem will--as always--collect his fee.

Last Friday's nine-and-a-half-hour NBA bargaining session in New York was called "productive"--which is what the Germans said when Chamberlain visited Hitler in Munich. Later reports hinted at a settlement in time for Thanksgiving but worried about disputes over such fascinating subjects as percentage limits on escrow taxes and a major change in free-agent signing rules. In the end, the Associated Press reported, Patrick Ewing himself was overheard talking to a league official during a break. "Let's get back in there," the $20 million man said. "I want to play."

What he did not say, probably didn't dare say, was: This is a communal struggle for justice. He didn't say: For the good of the game, let's keep talking. What he said was: I want to play. It was not the slogan of a union man but the personal demand of a vexed millionaire.

On a happier note, consider the quiet evolution of Broncomania in this town. Inspect the neighborhoods, and you'll find fewer predominantly orange houses than in seasons past. On the streets and in the saloons, you hear none of the desperate giddiness that fueled the vain pioneer hopes of 1978, none of the brave bluster that preceded the San Francisco slaughter of 1990. Elway, Davis and company won the Super Bowl last season--make no mistake. With that one under their belts, and 11-0 on the books this year, fans evidently feel less need to shout their half-scared claims out loud. Because Broncomaniacs no longer dream. They know.

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