As the posturing continued in Park Avenue conference halls and swank New York hotel rooms, there was a bold message coming from Bologna.
NBA commissioner David Stern has continued to gather his owners, his minions, and meet face-to-face with players while crafting this delicate message that he wants what’s best for basketball, what’s best for the NBA. A convoy of players has repeatedly embarked upon Manhattan hoping for a deal with the commissioner, and at the end of each meeting, union president Derek Fisher has exited onto the streets of New York with nothing to report.
All the while, the game’s biggest name – Kobe Bryant – suffered national lashings for being absent from the meetings. While his peers were being dragged along, merely powerless pawns in Stern’s game, Bryant was on the precipice of inking a deal with Virtus Bologna of the Italian League, a deal that would pay him around $3 million for 10 games of work during the lockout.
Because Bryant wasn’t sitting in New York raising his voice, making news by standing up and ordering David not to speak to him like a child, he was suddenly deemed selfish.
Critics said his priorities were out of order. They said he was not living up to his responsibilities as one of the most powerful voices the union has during these contentious labor negotiations.
Like the morsels of hope Stern wants the naïve to buy in bunches, none of it possessed even a semblance of truth, which was confirmed Tuesday when Bryant joined the meetings that culminated in another fruitless verdict.
“We find ourselves where we expected to be, a lockout that may jeopardize a part or whole of our season,” Fisher told reporters after talks had ceased early Tuesday evening on Manhattan’s East Side.
The largest stickler, of course, is how to split revenues, and in the previous CBA, the union had a 57 percent share of basketball-related income (BRI). The owners wanted to cut that by 11 percent. On Tuesday, the union offered to decrease its share of the BRI to 53 percent. No go, the owners said.
And during these last weeks of greedy negotiations, of the owners asking for a life raft to be tossed to save them from self-inflicted wounds, Bryant was blasted by pundits.
What the critics failed to realize, however, is that Bryant was indeed sending a message through his absence. Because Bryant, before Tuesday, wasn’t standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the players and partaking in Stern’s weekly hearings, he fired the union’s loudest bullet.
Bryant’s warning shot: Get real David.
By holing up in boardrooms and allowing players the opportunity to communicate their desires, Stern tried to send the message that this lockout had a real chance of reaching its conclusion soon.
The next meeting has not been scheduled, and by Monday, Stern will have canceled the first two weeks of the regular season.
While Stern’s power trip continues, he wants the public to believe that the games matter to him. That the product matters to his owners. That anything besides the last dollar matters.
Except it isn’t true, and the only one who has wafted through the smoke and the politicking unfazed to this point is Bryant. Fisher is the brain and voice of the union, but Bryant is the cold, stubborn will.
Because autumn continues to settle in and real games are on the brink of elimination, the sense of urgency around Billy Hunter and the union grows. Although Hunter warns otherwise, Stern knows the union will weaken when the players start showing up at their homes for dinner while the checks don’t.
That is Stern’s endgame, but Bryant is the impenetrable soul of the union, and he’s making it clear that he won’t let himself or his peers get played.
We should have known Bryant was in this fight for the long haul. Earlier this year, after Stern made it clear that he wanted to reduce player costs by between $750 and $800 million, Bryant didn’t draw a line in the sand. He built a moat between the union and Stern.
“It’s about making sure we have the best deal going forward,” Bryant told CBS. “That’s my stance and it’s not going to change. I’m not going to waver. It’s about taking care of the generation that’s coming after us. That’s what the guys before us tried to do, and that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m not going to waver from that.”
Bryant isn’t wavering because he doesn’t believe the reports and rhetoric Stern is parroting about the league bleeding money. The reports say owners swallowed more than $300 million last season, but nobody knows how true that is.
And when it comes after the league just produced one of its most entertaining and fascinating seasons ever – elements that inevitably turn profits in other markets — Stern’s plea for pity is met with bellows of laughter.
Some teams surely remain unstable, but not the league as a whole. Bryant is supposed to believe that when his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, just signed a new TV deal that could pay it up to $150 million annually, according to reports? Bryant is supposed to believe that when many owners – those who also own arenas – can weather the lockout with revenue streams from concerts and other events held in their home venues?
Excuse Bryant for being fashionably late to the meetings. He knows the owners have other avenues for generating income while arena doors are locked and players are turned away from training facilities, so he’s going to pursue his own.
Remember, during the 1998-99 work stoppage, Bryant was one of five players to vote against the proposed CBA because it limited his earning power on a forthcoming contract by about $30 million. This is not a man accustomed to amending his word, reconsidering his resolve.
Bryant has built a Hall of Fame career on trusting his own survival instincts, and these negotiations are no different. He’s not looking to make friends, not looking to take less than he believes the players deserve.
Bryant will likely go off to Italy for a money grab tour. When Stern calls for a meeting, he will yawn, order an Italian meal, and tell the commissioner that he’ll send a postcard from Bologna next week.
It’s not selfishness, it’s leadership. When the union threatens to break, Bryant will stare it in the eye, like he’s done to countless wavering teammates, and tell it to fall in line.
Don’t think Bryant’s priorities aren’t in order and that his message can be delivered only from the Park Avenue pavement. Bryant will lurk overseas, waiting in the waters for the first scent of owners’ blood. When he sees opportunity, he’ll move. Not a minute before.
Under Bryant’s watch, the players won’t be the puppets in Stern’s magic show.
Teddy Mitrosilis is a editor for ESPN Insider. You can follow him on Twitter and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.