Lockout cutting it close

NEW YORK — David Stern insisted Saturday the media takes him more seriously than he takes himself, but this was just one of the semantic tricks he uses to avoid easy answers to hard questions.

The NBA commissioner wanted to avoid specifics when asked if progress in lengthy collective bargaining talks had been significant enough to know if the regular season might begin on time.

“If we didn’t think there was any hope,” he said, “we wouldn’t be scheduling the meetings, but that is the best I would say right now.”

You have to be close enough to see the pained look on Stern’s face to know the real answer isn’t between the lines, but right there in his eyes.

Here’s the truth from a weekend of talks Stern said would carry enormous consequences: There is a better chance the entire 2011-12 season will be canceled than there is that anyone will see a regular season game on Nov. 1.

The league seems to be edging closer to the most inept moment in its history, which is what canceling the entire season would represent.

If the owners who are OK with losing the season — Phoenix’s Robert Sarver, Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert and Boston’s Wyc Grousbeck among them — believe fans deprived of games they love will forgive a lost year, you have to wonder how they ever managed to make enough money to buy their teams.

In a rocky economy, alienating customers by withholding a product they love would be lunacy.

Eventually, fans would return in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and probably in San Antonio. In other markets, generally smaller and middle ones — places such as Sacramento, Indiana, Charlotte, New Orleans, Utah, Detroit, Milwaukee and Memphis — it would be years before there would be forgiveness in the form of robust attendance.

The real issue for small- and middle-market owners is competitiveness. They don’t believe they can compete for a championship with the Jerry Busses unless the salary cap system allows them a chance to keep their stars. There are ways to accomplish this while retaining a soft enough cap to satisfy the union.

The players’ No. 1 concern is guaranteed contracts. A true hard cap would put 75 to 80 percent of players on yearly deals, which is why union executive director Billy Hunter calls a hard cap a “blood issue.”

Meanwhile, Sarver, who once spent the bulk of a Spurs-Suns game imitating a chicken from his courtside seat to mock Gregg Popovich’s decision to sit a sore-legged Manu Ginobili, has emerged as the hardest of the hard-liners on the labor relations committee. The players over the weekend reportedly were dumbfounded when he described how his wife had begged him to bring home the mid-level salary cap exception in a designer bag.

It’s going to take an owner with a boatload of courage to stand up to shut-it-down hawks such as Sarver and remind what is at stake, which is the very popularity of the league.

Spurs owner Peter Holt, who chairs the owners’ labor relations committee, is no chicken. Awarded a Silver Star for valor in the Vietnam War, it may be time for Holt to take control of the committee and demand its members recognize the tens of millions in givebacks the players already have put on the table.

After all, Holt’s team has remained competitive in a small market because it has been one of the league’s smartest in managing the soft cap.

Also, the fact the Spurs paid no luxury tax but still lost several million dollars in a 2010-11 season in which they won 61 games gives Holt a platform to demonstrate to the players that the plea for some form of systemic change is no semantic trick from Stern.


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