Mike Monroe: Debt to Duncan colors NBA impasse

On opening night of the 2007-08 Spurs season, the club formally acknowledged what already had been reported: Two-time Most Valuable Player Tim Duncan had agreed to extend his contract for two more seasons.

Part of the deal: Duncan agreed to take a $3.5 million pay cut in the first season of the extension, presumably so the Spurs could be players in the rich free agent summer of 2010.

Back then, club owner Peter Holt gushed about Duncan’s selfless dedication to the franchise.

“This is Tim and the way he does things and the way he always has been,” Holt said. “He told me a long time ago, after David (Robinson) retired, that he wanted to go out the same way: Go out a winner and stay in San Antonio. Tim Duncan is very much in the same mold as David.”

But he is no one’s carbon copy.

Today, on a day that was to have concluded at the ATT Center with the first game of the Spurs’ 2011-12 season, Robinson finds himself alongside Holt in a Spurs ownership group aligned with the other NBA owners. As a group, the owners are intent on ensuring profitability by threatening the players with cancellation of more games as a lockout imposed on July 1 continues into its fifth month.

Duncan remains a loyal member of the National Basketball Players Association, which has dwindling options as its solidarity frays and its leadership fractures.

We can only wonder what the great power forward must be thinking this morning about that $3.5 million pay cut he took that ultimately enabled the Spurs to acquire Richard Jefferson and his bloated contract.

Isn’t that deal one of the exhibits the players should present to the world when they assert that the owners are asking the union to protect them from their own folly?

And wasn’t it Duncan’s greatness — his 21-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist, eight-block title-clinching Game 6 in 2003 that ranks as one of the greatest in Finals history — that sent Robinson off to retirement with a second championship ring and a lasting memory before he bought a piece of the Spurs?

Holt seems to understand the debt he and Robinson and other Spurs owners owe to Duncan. Chairman of the owners’ labor relations committee, he said as much to reporters after negotiations blew apart on Oct. 20.

In refuting the notion the Spurs proved it possible for a team to thrive financially and win championships in a relatively small market, Holt said the Spurs had lost money in 2009-10 and 2010-11 and would have run in red ink sooner if not for good fortune in the draft.

“Fortunately, a fellow named Tim Duncan showed up and David Robinson before that, and we won some championships,” Holt said. “We were able to go deep into the playoffs. It helped cover our losses. If we had not had that situation, we would have been losing money even before these last two years in this last CBA.”

Now Duncan will pay dearly — about $211,000 per game — with each one that isn’t played in what could be the final season of his brilliant career.

Duncan was just entering his second season when the owners locked out the players in 1998, not yet of a stature to play an important role in collective bargaining. Then, it was left to Michael Jordan to intercede in collective bargaining talks. His Airness famously told Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin that if he could not afford to run an NBA team, he should sell it.

This is not to suggest Duncan should confront Holt the same way, but wouldn’t his presence add a rich texture to the fabric of the union’s stance? And perhaps he might be just the right union member to make the same suggestion to Jordan, now owner of the Bobcats, that Jordan offered to Pollin.

After all, it’s when selling a franchise that the owners truly cash in, with no obligation to split those proceeds with anyone.


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