Holt in middle, players in trouble

Peter Holt has been in a shouting match with Chris Paul, and he’s been called “unrelenting.”

“You haven’t felt enough pain yet,” Holt told player representatives, according to one report.

Holt, the most prominent owner in the NBA’s labor dispute, is carrying on a Spurs tradition. The late Angelo Drossos was known for a few fights, too.

But this isn’t Holt’s nature, and this isn’t an accurate portrayal of what has happened, either. He has strong views because of his franchise’s small-market status. Yet he’s mostly been by David Stern’s side as a consensus builder, and the result has gotten a new bloc of hard-line owners to agree to a deal that is now in front of the players.

This should scare the players.

Holt is a reasonable one.

If Drossos is looking down on these negotiations, he’s applauding. He was a creative and tough Spurs CEO, and he would admire Stern for what he has done. The players are now stuck in a half-court trap in which their best option is a painful one.

Drossos would have done the same. He once argued for a system that would allow only one-year contracts, and he long ago came up with an idea that is the basis of nearly every discussion going on today. Drossos was the father of the salary cap.

“The influence and power he had,” Stan Albeck said a few years ago, “absolutely dominated meetings. Spurs meetings, league meetings.”

Albeck felt that firsthand. When Albeck wanted to leave the Spurs to sign with New Jersey, Drossos squeezed players out of the Nets in return.

Hill Country Holt hasn’t been the same. He had the qualities needed to make a franchise work in a small market, such as money, patience and politics. But he’s been tie-less and pretension-less, delegating to those he trusted.

Holt isn’t built for meetings. With the Spurs, his attention often fades when talk turns to details. But now, at Stern’s side, more active than any owner, Holt has been working through marathon meeting after marathon meeting.

The spat with Paul was a fluke; Stern wasn’t there then, out with an illness. Holt has probably been “unrelenting,” but that isn’t a negotiating negative. And the “pain” quote was secondhand.

Holt’s role, instead, has been as a facilitator, trying to keep his peers in line. He’s doing what Jerry Colangelo once did for Stern, and Stern likely chose Holt because he wanted the perception Holt provided.

Holt’s Spurs have been successful winning games, yet continue to struggle making a profit. So the large-market owners understand, and the small-market ones believe he’s looking out for them.

Stern needed such a partner. Whereas he once was a one-man consensus, Stern now faces more than a dozen new owners, many of whom have wanted an even more radical economic model. Stern needed someone to engage them and pull them along.

Stern got that from Holt. While the players bristle at a 50-50 split, there was an undercurrent among owners such as Phoenix’s Robert Sarver who wanted even more. Now, if the players reject the current offer this week, Sarver will get his wish. The owners’ next proposal will go lower.

Drossos would have been ready to do the same. Holt, instead, waits to continue a process that has been both exhausting and exhilarating. The way this often goes, Holt will likely have to fly to New York a few more times; the owners’ ultimatum doesn’t necessarily mean the negotiations are over.

Still, the owners’ stance is one that could be seen coming a year ago. And as they force the players into a corner, a sign of their resolve has stood next to Stern throughout.

Holt, a symbol of small-market angst, is working the middle.


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