Signs of lockout’s end fade quickly

“Two tickets, torn in half. And a lot of nothing to do.” — Elliott Smith, “Miss Misery”

Those tickets you bought for Spurs games in November?

Mere memories of misery.

All that optimism that oozed from a press conference room in a New York City hotel on Thursday night, in stark contrast to the gloom and doom of the previous Thursday night, was an illusion. Commissioner David Stern and union executive director Billy Hunter conjured all that giddiness with mirrors, and the gullible believed their prestidigitation was the truth.

We were told there was near-agreement on the system changes the NBA has insisted must happen if all 30 teams are to have a chance to be competitive, save for some issues that hardly seemed like deal-breakers. This was what the union had said must happen if the owners expected additional movement on the money issue, the split of basketball-related income.

The league already had proposed a 50-50 split, but as a prerequisite for discussion of the system.

With that issue so close to agreement, didn’t logic dictate a compromise on BRI somewhere between the league’s 50 percent and the union’s last position, 52.5?

Hadn’t David Stern promised he would be negotiating Friday on all aspects of the collective bargaining agreement?

Hunter believed he had, so when Stern informed the union on Friday that the league’s offer was not going above 50 percent, serendipity vaporized.

There were the expected semantic riffs about the numbers. Hunter said Stern “snookered” him into thinking the league would negotiate up from its position on the money split. He swore the league’s move was backwards, to 47 percent, an assertion Stern called “an utter misrepresentation.”

Some of us got advance warning there was trouble in the air, even as the two sides worked into the early afternoon in midtown Manhattan. Before the talks blew up this text message ? from a trusted NBA executive landed in my smartphone: “Staunch stance by owners on 50-50. Problematical.”

Stern and Hunter had tried to warn that Friday was no slam-dunk deal, but their mutual jocularity on Thursday night trumped their words.

Then, the New York Times told us NBA officials contacted arena managers with instructions to clear dates for in the final two weeks of April so enough regular season games could be squeezed in to accommodate a full, 82-game schedule.

Optimism reigned.

But the early text message warning was prescient, the feeling of letdown palpable.

The tangible casualty Friday was an 82-game season that was going to be a logistical stretch for every team, a competitive straitjacket for teams with veteran stars.

Back-to-back-to-back games, Tim Duncan?

Probably not.

Also gone was the collegial feel that had prevailed through a 15-hour session on Wednesday and Thursday’s “we’re almost there” session, and this is unsettling. In a question-and-answer session on Wednesday, famed economist Kevin Murphy, who consults for the union, spoke a bit about ill will.

“I don’t want to see any lingering bad blood between the two sides,” Murphy told Steve Aschburner. “That’s not good, either. You run the risk that, if it gets too personal, that creates its own set of frictions going forward.”

It was a good sign, then, that union vice president Maurice Evans was spotted giving a goodbye hug to Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, chairman of the league’s Board of Governors, before both headed to LaGuardia Airport for flights to their home cities.

Then there was this text from the league exec who had seen trouble coming:

“50.5 or 51 — gotta throw ’em a lifeline; NBA will, but will now whack some games, leave some scars.”

Find optimism in that at your own risk.

Leave a Reply