From the league that brought you the term "salary cap" came this week's discombobulating news.

Forget the cap, the NBA owners say. It's making their heads hurt.At midnight Eastern time on Tuesday, the rich men who run pro basketball locked the doors, raising the possibility that games could be canceled for the first time in NBA history.

The issues are that substantial, and the differences are that pronounced.

It looms as an ugly work stoppage. And if you're scoring along at home - and maybe dozing off during Mavericks games - you have to wonder whether the scars will be lasting.

The current NBA, the Generation-X version, has become a tired shadow of its former self. Thirsting for post-Jordan stars, the league may have to settle for types like the vacuous Shaquille O'Neal. Monotoned and mono-dimensional.

A league possibly without Michael Jordan, a league that can't shoot straight, could well lose an entire legion of fringe fans if the lockout lingers into November or December.

And current posturing and saber-rattling suggest it might.

Work stoppages where the owners seem to say, "Help us - we can't control ourselves," tend to be long and divisive (see "baseball," circa 1994). Asking workers, whether they be point guards or assembly line riveters, to give back money and/or contract concessions is a concept not conducive to prompt reconciliation.

The players say they won't give back the so-called Larry Bird Exception, the loophole through which billions of NBA salary dollars have passed. The Bird clause permitted teams to re-sign their own free-agent stars beyond the constraints of the salary cap.

The math seemed so simple. Without the Bird Exception, if you had a free agent and were only $1.5 million under the salary cap, I could offer your player $1.6 million and snatch him away.

More than any one line in the current collective bargaining agreement, the Larry Bird Exception is responsible for payrolls that have escalated at a rate of 15 percent each season.

It has led to absurdities like the Minnesota Timberwolves, fighting for their own credibility, to cough up $126 million over six years for Kevin Garnett. Owners have decided that losing star players to free agency is tantamount to marketing suicide.

Go figure. By practicing safe salary-capping, owners could have simply lateraled free agents from team to team each season, never having to write an $18 million-per-year paycheck. Instead, they bow to the spell of the Bird rule.

Good PR, bad business.

The players aren't about to give it up. They apparently fail to see the algebra involved, when the stars are paid eight figures a year while an estimated 20 percent of the league makes the NBA minimum, $272,500.

If the players had a real union, they would acknowledge the disparities in a system that has, in effect, forced out the league's middle class - its dues-paying, mid-salaried veteran. But since the agents all but run the players' union, the veteran with the $1.1 million contract has little voice.

The stars get the contracts, the officials' calls, and the multimillion-dollar Exceptions.

Admittedly, it's hard to pick a side to root for here. The average NBA ticket buyer will find it hard to muster fiscal sympathy for a Jerry Reinsdorf or a Ross Perot Jr., especially since the new TV contract with NBC will raise each team's share 250 percent next season to $23 million.

But, on the other hand, how do you take sides when the outcome would mean another Rolls in the driveway for Shaq or Patrick Ewing?

The NBA salary cap, as it turns out, has been nothing more than a beanie with a propeller on top. Help us, the owners say, before we spend ourselves into oblivion.

In the Gen-X NBA, unfortunately, they don't know whether Oblivion is an accountant's term or a disco.

This one figures to linger long into autumn.

Without a Michael to salve the wounds, this lockout will leave scars.