For his next trick, David Stern will make the NBA disappear. Come Wednesday, the NBA commissioner will lock out the league's players, signaling the first menacing elbow of the collective bargaining process.

We have seen these kinds of signals before, and our response has typically been a robust, "So what?" Reason being: The NBA has never lost a regular season game to labor strife, and what if it did?Nothing this side of a Mark McGwire batting practice homer is as insignificant as an NBA regular season game. Atlanta at the Clippers. Toronto at New Jersey. If it wasn't for frequent flier mileage and Marriott points, it would be impossible to justify the pre-February portion of the NBA schedule.

This time Stern, the NBA's owners and its players are messing with fire. The issues are more contentious. The Larry Bird rule - which allows a team to moon the salary cap when re-signing one of its own free agents - is at issue. Stern is gunning for it. The league's players are lining up to take the bullet.

Stern is full of himself on this count. It is absolutely better for the league, its fans, its teams and its proletariat if players such as Bird, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are allowed to remain with their powerhouse teams. The game is better off for having known the Bird Celtics, the Magic Lakers and the Jordan Bulls.

But that's just part of the point. Equally important now is that this labor war seems destined to spill over into the regular season, and that such a spillover could cost the league its reigning deity.

Recall that Jordan is currently in the throes of Do-I-Stay-Or-Do-I-Go anguish. Recall, too, that he ditched baseball after the 1994 strike cost him a likely late-season call-up to the big leagues, and the 1995 lockout put spring training on hold. Baseball's loss was basketball's gain. And while it's possible Jordan would have returned to the NBA at some point anyway, still . . .

Phil Jackson, the coach Jordan would never play without, has already ridden his Harley into the sunset. The lockout will prevent the Bulls (or any other team) from even trying to sign Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman. It's not difficult to imagine Jordan contemplating the uncertainty of it all, reflecting on his epic Game 6 against Utah, considering his winning shot for the ages, and thinking to himself, "I need this like I need another $5,000 suit. I'm outta here."

Which is going to happen sooner or later anyway. But you would think Stern, the owners and the players association would move heaven, Earth and Stanley Roberts to delay that day as long as possible since a) they're not prepared for it, and b) it will signal a return to those dispiriting days of 1978-79.

Nothing against that discofied time, but it wasn't exactly a golden age for foreign politics, men's fashion or the NBA. That was the season before Bird and Magic were drafted, and how bad did the league need them? The All-NBA team for '78-79 was Marques Johnson, Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, George Gervin and Paul Westphal. Rumor has it at least three of them could dunk.

That was the last season the league drifted rudderless, without a great team (or teams) featuring a great player (or players) to set a standard and goose the imagination that fuels the merchandise-buying public. If you don't believe dynasties are good for business, consider the following:

In the past 12 seasons, three men have won scoring titles. In the 12 seasons before Bird and Magic (followed by Jordan), eight men lead the league in scoring. Seen a kid in a Bob McAdoo jersey lately?

In the past 15 years, seven men have been named MVP. In the 15 years before that, nine men were MVP. One, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was among the most unhuggable superstars in sports history.

The NBA is headed for a fall no matter how this summer's labor scrum plays out, and not just because Jordan is an incipient retiree. The league's ills have been well chronicled, from the empty luxury suites in pricey new arenas, to authority-throttling players, to the tendency toward pugilistic, low-scoring games, to collateral embarrassments such as Marv Albert and last week's wholly uninspiring draft.

But it is instructive to note that an ugly labor set-to might hasten Jordan's departure, and would certainly leave the league even less prepared to deal with his absence.