Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Un-Civil Strife

The ugliness at the NBA

By Randy Horick

JULY 27, 1998:  I encountered a ghastly wreck on I-65 the other day. The image of the hideous mass of metal is still imprinted on my mind. At first, I had a hard time recognizing what it was. It was a statue--I could tell that much. I saw that it represented a man on horseback, wielding a sword; his facial expression suggested that he'd just been goosed with a hot poker. Despite the row of fluttering Confederate flags behind it, I wouldn't have known that the statue was supposed to represent Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest if I hadn't read about it in the pages of this very publication.

Since the sight of the metallic medusa nearly caused me to swerve off the road, I've read how the appearance of Ol' Marse Forrest has sent more than a few of our citizens into a ring-tailed swivet.

"A fitting tribute to our Southern heritage and tradition of defending states' rights and individual liberties," gushed the sons and daughters of the Lost Cause who flocked to the statue's unveiling, reverent as pilgrims to Graceland.

"A provocative and inappropriate veneration of racism!" (or words to that effect) howled many others, who pointed to Forrest's alleged role in the founding of the Ku Klux Klan and in the massacre of black Union prisoners at Fort Pillow.

So passionate and absorbed did this debate become that it was left, days later, to an even-keeled letter-to-the-editor writer to point out the most relevant point about Bedford Forrest's monument: It's flat-out, actively, Pigeon Forge ugly.

It's ugly enough to make a freight train take a back alley. Ugly enough to make that towering hulk of Athena in the Parthenon look like something Lord Elgin would have deemed worth stealing. More bombastic and appalling to the eye than the sight of Rick Majerus in a low-slung little Speedo.

All of this is what makes the Forrest statue a handy aid to understanding the National Basketball Association's current labor relations impasse--which, like the I-65 I-sore, is both singularly unattractive and not really about what the involved parties profess to believe it's about.

Sometimes it takes an event like this recent monument christening to flush them out, but, bless their hearts, there are still lots of fine Christian folks around here (not to mention a few Aryan crypto-Nazis) who cling to the desperately uninformed belief that the Civil War, for Southerners, was not about s-l-a-v-e-r-y.

Like proponents of "creation science" (another, sometimes overlapping, subset of defiantly gaseous ignoramuses) laboring to offer evidence that the dinosaurs lived barely 4,000 years ago, these Lost Causers will spout with apparent conviction that Bedford Forrest and his gray-coated compatriots were defending the cause of states' rights--oh, please--as if any right were worth seceding over other than the legal privilege of treating blacks as chattel property.

Of course, some of our Nawthun friends cherish the similarly bogus notion that their Yankee forbears were embarking on a noble military crusade to end slavery. As a whole, the society was far too racist to lift a finger, much less a weapon, to liberate slaves--at least until black soldiers began dying to win their freedom and Lincoln adroitly shifted the North's official war aims.

Now, if it still seems utterly confounding to comprehend what some dog-poot pitiful statue has to do with pro basketball's current civil war, it should--because, just as with the late War of Northern Aggression, you sure as snuff couldn't cipher out the reasons for the dissent, based on what the participants are saying. It's not even clear that they can admit it to themselves, or that it would make two hoots of difference if they could.

Thanks to the fat-cat owners, the fat-cat players are locked out right now. They can't practice, can't play, can't be traded to other teams. They can't represent the United States in the world championships this summer. They can't pass Go and can't collect $200 per jump shot.

And why? Because, officially, the players and owners are irresolvably disagreed over the Larry Bird exception.

The Bird rule has to do with salaries of first-year players. I could explain it to you. I think. (Be wary of dealing with anyone who claims, with utter certainty, that he can explain this rule to you in non-lawyerfied English.)

It doesn't matter anyhow. The salaries of first-year players ultimately have about as much to do with the labor impasse as tariff protection had to do with Bull Run.

The best way to keep it all straight is to follow the advice of Deep Throat: Follow the money.

In this case, the money trail leads right to the top levels of both hostile camps, each of which is battling to defend an indefensible position.

The players, whose plush contract already gives them more than half of total revenues, have negotiated a two-tiered caste system. At the top are elite veterans like Shaq, Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, and Alonzo Mourning--but also young whippersnappers, like Kevin Garnett, Glenn Robinson, and Keith Van Horn, who demand and get increasingly stratospheric salaries just for signing a rookie contract.

Because NBA franchises must operate under an overall team salary cap, one Malone and one Garnett on the same squad could consume a way-disproportionate share of their team's dollars. Which means that a disproportionate number of players around the NBA must play for salaries close to the league minimum. (Which, before your sympathies extend too far, still ain't exactly the minimum wage at McDonald's.) Thus, the players' union, abetted by gazillionaire agents like David Falk, have fought doggedly for an arrangement that actually disserves most of the union's members.

Not that the owners, of course, have swathed themselves in glory. Rather, they have ratcheted up the pay scale. And now, like so many other unfettered capitalists, they hope someone--in this case, the players' union--will now save them from their competitive impulses by suddenly giving back some of the wealth they bled out of the owners in the first place.

But the players and owners aren't really fighting over rookie salary caps, just as the Rebs weren't taking up arms to defend states' rights or some genteel, agrarian way of life. They're struggling over ultimate control of the game. Apparently, the NBA isn't big enough for both of them.

And, yet, just like the forces verbally warring over Forrest's statue, the players and owners aren't just arguing beside the point; they're missing the larger point: People think they're ugly.

In the NBA's civil war, the parties are treating their struggle as if the nation's future were at stake, not just some basketball games in which a lot of guys force up a lot of bad shots and play relatively little defense.

In case David Stern, the league's commissioner, and Ewing, the union president, haven't noticed, fan interest in the NBA wasn't exactly peaking before the lockout. (MJ's apparently imminent departure for the golf course won't exactly buoy those TV ratings either.)

Hard to believe though it may be, the economy won't screech to a halt if there are no NBA games this season. We will somehow manage to eke out an existence if we're deprived of seeing Garnett dunk and John Stockton drive and Shaq brick free throws. It will be a tough winter, but we'll get by without hearing the familiar whines of misunderstood, mistreated millionaires.

On the other hand, the lockout presents an intriguing possibility: The season might disappear, the players might go into hibernation, and we might not even notice.

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