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Nashville Scene Whining and Dining

It's hard to feel sorry for the NBA

By Randy Horick

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  Take a few moments right now from your average hellish day to feel Kenny Anderson's pain. Put him on your church's prayer tree. Mail him a few extra bucks so he can buy some modest holiday gifts for his far-flung family.

You may have read of Kenny's plight. Kenny has not pocketed a paycheck in several months now, and he's not sure when another one will come. Meantime, the bills are kicking him hard and not stopping.

It requires some serious whipout--around $75,000 per year--to maintain Kenny's eight vehicles, which include a Porsche, a Range Rover, and a Mercedes. Another 150 Grovers are sucked right off the top and into the Beverly Hills home that Kenny must rent, at a great financial imposition, so he can remain bi-coastal.

On top of that, there's the child support he must pay each month to provide for several children he has fathered by different women. Unless the situation changes soon, Kenny will face some agonizing choices. He may have to cut back on his discretionary purchases. He might have to trim the fleet to six cars, or, if things get really skinny, even five. It's not easy keeping body and soul together when your $5.8 million salary disappears.

Kenny would like you to know that the perpetrators of his current misery are the goons and tycoons who cold-bloodedly locked him out of the job back in August. Now he and others are sticking together for their rights--for OUR rights--as red-blooded, Bud-guzzling, basketball-loving Americans.

When he's not posing as a champion of the working man, Kenny Anderson plays point guard for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association. Like three-hundred-and-some-odd of his ball-playing colleagues--a number of whom are much more lavishly compensated than he--Kenny is embroiled in a bitter fight with the league's onerous owners and their aptly named gunsel, commissioner David Stern.

For simplicity's sake, most of the media are describing this struggle as a "labor dispute," which is a little like calling the Tennessee Legislature a deliberative body. In this case, it's as if country club members organized an angry protest in favor of lower monthly fees and more au jus on the prime rib.

If you don't understand all of the particular issues that separate the owners and players, trust me: you have a clearer perception of things than they do. The more they immerse themselves in the details of their narrow world, the more divorced they become from reality; these squabblers are the "Low Tax" Loopers of sports.

Forget all the stuff about the Larry Bird exemption and rookie salary caps and luxury taxes. Here's what you need to know:

The owners, who'd like the union's help in dismantling the outrageously inflated structure that they themselves helped create, are fighting for the inviolable principle that ticket prices should rise as high as the market will bear, but players' salaries should not.

The players, amid even more derisive snorts from observers, are standing firm on the notion that they're entitled not merely to a generous share of team revenues, not even to half, but to a whopping 60 percent--a figure whose boldness must leave slobbery IRS auditors agog in admiration.

Right now, instead of watching the players drain twos and threes, we get to see them at sixes and sevens with the owners. Even if the dispute were settled tomorrow--and the sides still have more unresolved issues than Bill and Hillary--the season couldn't start until January.

That seems to be fine with the owners and the players' union. But both have managed to find one tee-niney patch of common ground. In a political miscalculation of Gingrichian proportions, each side judged that the public clamor over the prospect of a missed season (remember: we LOVE this game) would drive the other into capitulation.

Instead, whatever void was left by the NBA's aborted season has gone not only unmourned but unnoticed. If the league momentarily stirs any emotions among us at all now, it's a general feeling of revulsion.

Even more disconcerting to the hubris-filled hoopsters: Kobe's not shaking and baking, Shaq's not bricking free throws, Pippin's not sulking, Rodman's not vamping, Barkley's not spitting, Zo's not hammerlocking, Latrell's not choking, Larry Brown's not perpetrating, Don Nelson's not manipulating, John Calipari's not ethnic-slurring, and America seems to be better for it.

Worst of all for the beleaguered league, the farce now playing out at the negotiating table is actually more entertaining than the games not being played on the hardwoods.

Think about it. Not even Seinfeld's writers would have been outrageous enough to script a scenario in which a club of millionaires beg to be regarded as pitiable underdogs.

Not even Bill Clinton, for all his storied ability to perform contortions with the truth, would have been shameless enough to claim, as Patrick Ewing did, that his livelihood would be threatened if he signed onto the league's proposed labor agreement. (Patrick earned slightly less money than God last year.)

Not even Monicagate could match the NBA's cast of characters for seaminess and connivery. Our Congressional representatives, who must be ecstatic over the league's predicament, all of a sudden don't look quite so weaselly.

It's particularly fun to watch the squirming of NBC and TNT--who, in one of the biggest sucker deals since the Louisiana Purchase, obligated themselves to pay a mint to NBA owners whether or not a single game gets played. Now, in their desperation, these entities that hold so much power over our lives have been reduced to running ads that end with the plea, "Start the season. Hurry."

Well, fellas, not so fast. For the time being, it's in our national interest to keep this lockout going as long as we can. After the mess we've been through, we need a long, collective belly-laugh.

And if we ever get tired of their schtick, we can impress the owners and players into the service of the State Department. Ship 'em off to Serbia and Iraq. After they get a load of negotiating with these crazed, unrelenting extremists, Saddam and Slobodan will be begging to give us whatever we want.


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