It’s been 13 years since a lockout caused a work stoppage in the NBA. Walt Williams remembers 1998 like it was yesterday.
“I thought, ‘OK, we’re going through this lockout, but there’s no way that it’s going to last that long,’ ” Williams said. “Basketball not being played? Are you serious? We’re going to be able to work this out.”
But the lockout dragged into December. The players, Williams recalled, were starting to panic.
“You start to get a little scared. But we believed in what we were fighting for,” Williams said.
Williams, who grew up in Temple Hills, played at Maryland and spent two years as a Washington Wizards broadcaster after retiring from the NBA in 2003, believes that many of the issues are the same today as they were during his playing days.
“During our lockout, the owners were basically trying to get a bigger piece of the pie, and we weren’t trying to give it up,” Williams said. “They were trying to squeeze us, get more revenue, stop us from changing teams, lower the salary cap, limit what we could earn. Back then, they also said that a lot of team were losing money. We didn’t believe it for a second.”
The 1998-99 lockout, which was settled Jan. 6, was characterized as more of a victory for the owners than the players, because as the situation dragged on, the players began to show signs of dissension. They also lost a good deal of fan support when they scheduled a charity game in December in Atlantic City, with the charity being themselves.
Ultimately the game was played, and the money went to actual charities. During that time, many of the player reps were superstars, including Patrick Ewing, whose now-infamous quote “Yes we make a lot, but we spend a lot, too,” also turned fans against the players.
This time, most of the player reps are rank-and-file guys, such as president Derek Fisher of the Lakers and Mo Evans of the Wizards. The only superstar in the bunch is New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul.
“The players today have to stand firm as a unit,” Williams said. “If one side feels that the other side is not together, then they’ll take advantage of that. But what the players today are fighting for is important, especially when you start talking about veteran players. These players have proved that they belong, and in my opinion, they are the most important players.
“Potential is fantastic, but when you talk about something that’s proven, I think you ought to honor that.”
Among the issues today’s players are fighting for is keeping the salary cap exceptions, such as the Larry Bird rule, which would benefit veteran players.
From his contact with current players, Williams believes they are more prepared for a lockout than the players in his day but also believes this lockout could not come at a worse time for a league whose popularity is at an all-time high.
“A lot of the fans can’t get with this. They think both sides are a bunch of crybabies when you’re talking about that amount of money,” Williams said. “If they miss so much as one game, they risk losing fans like crazy. The fans will come back, but the players and the owners will have to win them back.”
The owners, Williams believes, have an advantage, and the players should be aware of what they’re up against.
“Most owners have other businesses that they derive income from,” he said. “But for the players, even your off-the court income comes from what you do on the court. The owners are tight. The players have to be prepared for the worst if it come to that.”
But in the end, it will have to come down to reaching a compromise.
“We fought tooth and nail, but in the end, we thought we came out with a good compromise,” Williams said of the 1998 lockout. “This time, just like with us, neither side is going to get everything they want. But they’re going to have to find something both sides can live with.”