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L.A. throws a great party, but labor unrest could lead to some hangover

MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

Owners and the players' union play nice this weekend for the All-Star game, but a lockout after the season seems likely.

February 20, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Clippers power forward Blake Griffin of the West drives past Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett of the East during the NBA All-Star game at Staples Center on Sunday.
Clippers power forward Blake Griffin of the West drives past Celtics power… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Last tango in L.A. or anywhere?

So much for All-Star Weekend 2011, also known as Happy Hour.

There were moving moments like Jerry West's ceremony, exciting ones when Blake Griffin did anything.

Management and labor didn't exchange as much as a snicker, even when Commissioner David Stern and union director Billy Hunter were asked about each other.

You could call it a charade, or good manners to avoid discussing the problems of the rich and famous while celebrating the golden goose, er, game.

Now they can turn to fixing their broken economic model, or toying with their own destruction, depending on your perspective.

Happily, even if the NBA shuts down or the union decertifies and players form their own league someone's All-Star game will be back here.

So, we're golden!

Of course, if you're an NBA player or owner, there's a little matter of that apocalypse looming.

If there's a War Party among Stern's owners, Hunter has his own madmen with agents advising they decertify and file an anti-trust suit first and talk later.

One agent, described as "one of the NBA's elite," just told Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski:

"Do I feel comfortable with Billy Hunter at the table with David Stern?

"No, I don't. We're so overmatched that it isn't funny. And the players don't have the [courage] to hang in there very long without a paycheck."

Get in line.

If pressure at his back is new for Stern, agents have vied for control of Hunter's union since 1996 when he replaced Simon Gourdine.

Girding for war as the owners began seeking givebacks, Gourdine became suspect possibly because of his background as NBA deputy commissioner.

The union was nakedly in agents' hands. David Falk, no one for subtlety, packed its leadership with clients: Patrick Ewing as president, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Juwan Howard on the board.

"Every time I see Patrick say something, it's almost like watching the Energizer bunny," Harold McDonald, Derrick Coleman's agent, told the New York Times.

"I'm just waiting for Falk to put in another battery and off Patrick goes again."

Also representing star of stars Michael Jordan, Falk, at least, was convinced he was as powerful as Stern.

Knowing a fight was unavoidable, Stern kissed off the NBA's perfect labor record and locked the players out in the fall of 1998.

It took Hunter until Jan. 6, a day before Stern's drop-dead date, to move Falk aside and make a deal, helped by Los Angeles-based agent Leonard Armato, who flew in with clients Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Now a minor player, Falk says he's a Stern fan, discounts the union's ability to stand up to him and counsels get this peace.

"Let's not make the same mistake as in 1998," Falk told the New York Times.

"If we don't [take a cooperative approach with the league], in my opinion, there's an overwhelming probability that the owners will shut it down."

Falk also blamed the union for not cleaning up bribery and whatever else leads today's stars to other agents.

"I've been through it in 1998, 2005," said Hunter at Sunday's game at Staples Center. "I've been around for 15 years and we got through it.

"As a matter of fact, the owners are saying that the deals that we got were adverse to their interest. I don't take it as much. I just know we've got to be prepared to go through this."

If NBA officials, owners and agents are always snickering at the union, they're missing something.

In a league in which race is the elephant in the room, rarely acknowledged but always a factor, the predominantly African American union has long demonstrated its solidarity.

The National Basketball Players Assn. was sport's first strong union from its birth at the 1964 All-Star game in Boston when players refused to take the floor until the owners approved a pension plan.

In 1998, the players stayed out long enough for Stern to schedule the meeting at which owners were to cancel the season.

The owners then only wanted a luxury tax and maximum salaries, as opposed to this season's Draconian demands, a 38% giveback, rolling back existing contracts, et al.

To date, the two sides haven't even begun to negotiate.

With both assuming there will be a July 1 lockout, there won't be much movement, if any, before that.

Why mess up July? Negotiators have families to take to the beach, like everyone else.

August?

Maybe, maybe not.

September with training camp a month off?

They'll be getting warmer, or not.

In any case, it's their problem. However this comes out, they'll still be them and we'll still be us.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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