All along, commissioner David Stern was dreaming of an NBA Christmas, a gift reopening on ABC. In announcing the tentative settlement of a five-month lockout early Saturday, Stern said the league intended to begin what can technically be classified as the 2011-12 season with a televised tripleheader on Dec. 25.
He would be well advised to conclude it before the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears kick off that night from Lambeau Field
The downside of the NBA's labor agreement is that it returns the game to football-mad America just in time for the countdown to the NFL playoffs. The upside — at least in the way Stern and company will synthesize the deal — is that it will guarantee at least six years of labor peace and will move the league in the direction of NFL-like competitive balance.
Whether Stern really believes that is his preferred model is something he would probably not want to be asked after an injection of truth serum and within hailing distance of the small-market teams' owners who formed the hard-line faction in the dispute.
After hearing a little too much about his own demise as the league's ultimate franchise player, Stern bristled at the suggestion that he was held captive by the likes of the Charlotte owner Michael Jordan. He asserted during one recent interview, "The lockout ends when I tell my owners it ends."
Yes, Stern, at 69, did ultimately prove that he remains an effective dealmaker — at least when he is not forecasting nuclear winter and leaving the world to ponder survival without LeBron James. But there was no question that the plight of those perennially oppressed small-market teams had to be reckoned with during these negotiations more than at any other time in the league's long history of catering to the wealthy.
The sustained virility of Occupy Olympic Tower — the NBA's Manhattan headquarters — will give even Jordan and the most mismanaged franchises the opportunity to turn a profit, through the transfer of approximately $300 million a year from the players to the owners. It remains to be seen how much harder the salary cap has become, and how much competitive balance may result.
But here is the tricky part for the NBA as it moves forward with its most potent teams inhabiting the glamour markets of Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Boston, Dallas and possibly soon New York: Will the sport ultimately benefit or bomb without superteams playing deep into June?
Professional football — wildly popular as metaphorical war, manned by costumed foot soldiers — is seldom marketed as a game of stars or even as a showdown of cities. It is primarily about Cowboys and Giants, Steelers and Ravens.
As the NFL season winds toward the playoffs, seldom does the league lose a minute's sleep worrying whether Super Bowl participants will captivate the viewing masses.
Conversely, Stern once cracked a joke born of truth that the ideal NBA finals would be anybody against the Lakers. His league was electrified last season by the union of James and Dwyane Wade and the formation of the anti-hero Heat. The league's most explosive growth years were marked by predictability, the reliance on a handful of transcendent teams and stars relentlessly marketed by the major basketball shoe companies.
During the 1970s, the least relished decade in modern NBA history, eight different teams from all corners of the country won the NBA championship. In the ensuing three decades plus, nine have won titles, while league revenue consistently soared.
Stern would say that growth was mostly attributable to the age of cable and satellite television. He would argue, as he had to during the lockout as the voice of all owners, that a system fairer to small-market teams was necessary to stabilize them and by extension preserve jobs.
That is true, but Stern also knows what happened when the San Antonio Spurs — a wonderful team in the pure basketball sense — was the class of his league. Critics yawned. Ratings sagged. America would rather hate on LeBron than shower Tim Duncan with love.
This is the continuing basketball conundrum as the players prepare to vote on a deal that will be tough for them to swallow, but still honors their individualism more than the NFL, with its dearth of guaranteed remuneration for much more hazardous work. The lockout lesson for NBA players is that they were finally made subject to the same forces of capitalism that dictate the swings of the stock market, the housing market and the salaries of the average worker.
They will get less but still plenty, and those struggling to hang on to their homes and health care will no longer have to hear them whine about the fairness of it all.
Hunter, their leader, summed it up nicely.
"The owners are independently wealthy," he said. "They did not earn their riches from basketball. They can function if the season blows up.
"I did not want to be reckless. This is not like the United Auto Workers and General Motors. They work together: they make automobiles. If something happens, they will all suffer. I don't like the idea of Armageddon. I was not prepared to play free and loose with my clients."
He said that in 1999 after the league's last lockout. The story doesn't change. When resolved to shut down, the owners typically win. But on the subject of parity, Stern above all may secretly be hoping the hardliners don't get exactly what they wished for.