It's about time the wristbands came off in the NBA lockout.
Losing money will put anyone in a bad mood, and that begins in earnest this week unless the league's players and owners agree to a new contract. With the Nov. 1 start to the regular season threatened, labor talks that have been simmering for months finally picked up some sizzle _ overheated Miami star Dwayne Wade reportedly yelled at Commissioner David Stern across the bargaining table at one point _ only to fizzle just as quickly.
Heading into the weekend, the commissioner was at his stern best, warning of "enormous consequences" unless real progress was made. Coming out of it, though, he sounded like Yogi Berra: "We're not near anything, but wherever that is, we're closer than we were before." After meetings broke up Monday, when training camps were supposed to open, both sides suggested Tuesday could be the big day.
"We can only say we're running out of time so many times," deputy commissioner Adam Silver said.
The notion that things don't get interesting in the NBA until the fourth quarter could be tested in a way the league's players and owners did not envision. Fans have been paying precious little attention to the lockout until now and more than a few of them won't care that a week's worth of preseason games already have swirled down the drain. As it is, too many NBA fans don't tune into the regular season with any regularity until the jockeying for playoff spots gets serious. Players have been staging exhibition games here and there throughout the summer, churning out enough highlight clips to keep hard-core hoops fans content and they may have to make do with little else.
The 5,000 or so tickets available for Saturday's planned South Florida All-Star Classic _ essentially a charity pickup game being hosted by the Miami Heat trio of Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh at Florida International University with appearances by a few of their superstar friends _ sold out in only two hours. But think back to last season, when James' defection from Cleveland to Miami made just about every Heat game a sellout, wherever they played. Even with a new labor deal already in place, the NBA wasn't going to generate that kind of momentum-building start to the season. But there's zero interest in watching wealthy players and wealthier owners play chicken.
The league's owners dug in their heels, claiming they lost a combined $300 million last year and need to end a salary structure that with its soft cap and guaranteed contracts resembles baseball's system. That may turn out to be a relevant example, since baseball's owners didn't get the cost-certainty they shut down the 1994 season to get, but they got all the ill will that fans accumulated after staying away from the ballparks. It turned out to be a lose-lose situation _ complicated further by a decade of "supersized" players _ that MLB needed years to recover from. The NBA similarly tested fans' patience by sacrificing the first half of the 1998-99 season to labor wars, but they appear more than willing to let history repeat itself.
Those who remember that fiasco have good reason to dread the next few days. Players returned from their furlough out of sorts as well as shape. Some straggled in late after wriggling out of commitments to overseas teams. Scoring and shooting percentages were down across the board, turnovers were up. More than a few games were difficult to watch. About the only consolation this time around is that between the exhibition games and all the videos they've made demonstrating they're working out, the players will be in better shape whenever they actually get around to real games.
The bigger question is whether the fans will still care enough by then to notice, or whether, like baseball's fans, they'll bear a grudge. Real harm will be felt first by the people who eke out a living on game days _ vendors, ushers and parking lot attendants _ and soon enough start rippling up the scale.
"We're going to continue to work at this until we can either figure it out in a way that will spare us all a lot of collateral damage and games missed, or not," players' association president Derek Fisher of the Lakers said, "but we're going to put the effort and the time in as we have been doing and see if we can come to a resolution."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.
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