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Los Angeles Lakers Derek Fisher, president of the NBA players, (R), speaks at a news conference alongside Executive Director of the NBA player's association Billy Hunter after holding another round of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the NBA and the NBA Players Association in New York, November 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)
Los Angeles Lakers Derek Fisher, president of the NBA players, (R), speaks at a news conference alongside Executive Director of the NBA player's association Billy Hunter after holding another round of unsuccessful contract negotiations between the NBA and the NBA Players Association in New York, November 10, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Jeff Blair

NBA players' union plays tough defence Add to ...

So now they’ve brought the lawyers in and, really, this is where it all seemed headed, didn’t it?

Doomsayers notwithstanding, there is still time to save the NBA regular season, and either way both sides deserve credit so far for one major accomplishment: The players’ union has for the most part prevented its members from saying, tweeting or blogging anything stupid, and commissioner David Stern has prevented his owners from personalizing the dispute with players, setting the tone himself by blasting away at “they” and saving his sharpest aim for union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler. Heck, even Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, has avoided too many direct hits.

Stern’s biggest test now will be preventing damage to his most marketable asset – guys named Kobe, LeBron, Dwyane, Chris and Amar’e. To that end, both he and the players’ association have common interest because there will be NBA basketball at some point – this season’s still not a write-off, frankly – and when that happens they can cut tickets or give away as much future landfill souvenirs as they want. It will be up to the players to save the game, and no league is as star-driven as the NBA.

Credit the NBA players for not allowing Stern to geld them. Credit them, too, for not going nuclear, because the players’ move to dissolve their union and file an anti-trust suit was a measured response to a hard-line position taken by Stern. It was not a full-scale decertification, which, as Hunter noted, could have taken up to 45 days, effectively killing the season. Legal analysts say this process is easier to reverse than decertification and that de facto bargaining can be done through the lawyers for both sides. It’s an olive twig if not an olive branch.

Any NBA player complaining about not getting a chance to vote on the owners’ package this morning might want to consider taking the next election of a team representative a little more seriously. The union executive is not under any obligation to ask for a vote of every player on every proposal, regardless of whether a commissioner says it’s “final.” That’s not how collective bargaining works. If there are players who are angry this morning, they can stand for election the next time. Or vote to fire president Derek Fisher and Hunter. They’ll get their say, in other words.

As for NBA fans? They’ll watch college hoops until the NBA comes back, and after an initial softness in television ratings and attendance, the fans will come back. That’s how fans are. It is a reality that almost every sports fan has experience with labour matters, since at one point every league of significance has been locked out or hit with a strike and most of the savvy fans understand that collective bargaining is nothing more than a necessary way to distribute revenue and set up logistical, contractual ground rules.

Thankfully, the whole “billionaire owners vs. millionaire players/a pox on both houses” angle is pretty much a non-starter.

So let the suits have their day. Friday, when Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver answered questions on a forum on the NBA website, Wade tweeted: “Why are all your ‘system’ solutions only impacting the PLAYERS?? What have the owners giving up (sic) of significance??”

The NBA’s response? “The economics & system favored the players in prior CBA .. Teams lost over 300m last year.”

Wade and Stern reportedly got into it during a bargaining session, with Stern wagging his finger and Wade calling him “David,” but that’s okay. Fair’s fair across the bargaining table. This thing is a long way from being settled, and both sides need to remember that however large the owners’ victory is, the players will be the ones who clean up the mess. One way or another, Stern and the owners will need these guys.

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