NEW YORK — Dancing on the high wire of Madness, trying not to look down into Folly and Oblivion. . . .
It hasn't been such a happy new year for the NBA and its players, who spent the first days of 1999 staring into the abyss, sticking their toes in--and, yes, steeling themselves to take the plunge.
Even as their differences narrowed until you had to squint to see them, they circled their wagons and issued their war cries. This stopped being a business deal months ago for at least some of these combatants. Running on empty, hating each other as they do, it's now as much a test of manhood.
The already wealthy owners of franchises worth from $100 million to $400 million are so angry at the attitude of those ingrates, their players, David Stern can get 20 votes for the Sayonara Scenario any time he wants.
The union is so sure he's bluffing, it will quibble to the end. Last week, when you would have thought cooler heads would be emerging, a conference call among agents rang, instead, with bloodcurdling cries for bashing the owners, forcing a shutdown rather than submit to this tyranny, etc.
And the greatest thing about it?
No one had to miss more than a day or two of their holiday vacations!
Stern issued orders from his condo in tony Aspen, Colo., where he and the family were enjoying schussing down the slopes with movie stars and supermodels.
Prominent labor firebrand Arn Tellem denounced the owners in one conference call with fellow agents, via cell phone from a resort in sunny Mexico.
Steve Kauffman, the agent who broke courageously from the prevailing mob mentality, ripped super-agent David Falk from his home in Malibu.
Meanwhile, the owners were making plans to encamp in Los Angeles in $750-a-day suites at the Omni, to decide if their economic woes are so bad, they have to pull the plug.
In real terms, not that reality runs this, little separates the two sides.
The union just offered to cap free agents at numbers close to the league's proposal, accepted its safeguards on exceeding the agreed-upon revenue split and moved toward its proposal on the split and the exceptions.
The league wants to see it on paper, since union officials have taken to making agreements one day and disavowing them the next, such that management people say they're dealing with a "moving target."
Under normal circumstances, a written proposal wouldn't be a holdup. In this case, it produced a public cat-fight between the Jeffreys, Kessler, the union attorney, and Mishkin, the league counsel. Mishkin said there would be no meeting. Kessler said, in that case, you can't have our offer.
This is what it has always been, a war among the rich, which is why the negotiations have been a farce.
The money they've lost is chump change to the guys calling the shots. If you're at $18 million a year like union president Patrick Ewing, or $8 million like Stern, or just sold your practice for $90 million like super-agent Falk, or gross $100 million a year like dove-turned-hawk Jerry Buss, you can risk torching the occasional season for principle or pique.
For all the macho chest-pounding, it's hard to believe anyone wants to lose the season (with the possible exception of Falk, the prankster, who always has his own agenda). Despite the vilification visited on each by the other side, Stern and union director Billy Hunter always intended to make a deal.
Dealing with the league is simple. Stern is reliable, even if he plays hardball and is plenty capable of turning petulant when crossed.
The union, however, is Hydra-headed, run by the dutiful soldiers on its negotiating committee, who are dominated by the hawks, Falk, Tellem and Kessler. They have all but imprisoned Hunter, a state of affairs the director tipped off last week in his repeated use of the phrase, "The committee has taken the position . . . "
Happily, Falk, who has campaigned shamelessly for attention, isn't enjoying it.
Stern fingered him as the bad guy. Fellow agents, who once allied themselves with him to fight Stern, told of his "I hate the league" vows and recalled the times he mused about organizing a boycott of Stern's All-Star game so the agents could put on their own.
The game Falk and Tellem did put on in Atlantic City was an embarrassment--and it was their fault. Ewing was laughed at, trying to make a case for giving 90% of the proceeds to "needy" players--ones normally earning $250,000--and 10% to UNICEF's starving children, but Ewing wasn't the genius who thought it up.
The game turned out to be usual casual off-season all-star get-together, with a negligible TV audience in a 12,000-seat hall they couldn't have half-filled without giving the tickets away. So much for the agents' conceit about America's hunger to see their clients.
Worst of all, Falk's crown jewel, Michael Jordan, deliberately distanced himself, refusing even to make a token appearance as a coach, going west, instead, to play in a golf tournament at La Quinta.