If canceling opening night and the rest of the NBA calendar for November failed to prove how serious David Stern is about saving his owners money, there's this: The commissioner reportedly fined Miami Heat honcho Micky Arison a cool half-million for a tweet suggesting he wasn't one of the owners willing to sacrifice games to save money.
In response to someone who labeled the parties involved in the lockout "greedy ... pigs," Arison tweeted, "Honestly u r barking at the wrong owner."
That's a lot more per letter than anyone has ever paid on "Wheel of Fortune." And speaking of game shows, the closest thing to a competition involving an NBA player anywhere on TV came Tuesday when New Orleans Hornets star Chris Paul showed up with his relatives in tow for an episode of "Family Feud." It was a poor substitute for watching the Dallas Mavericks raise last season's championship banner into the rafters before taking on the Chicago Bulls, one of three games originally on the schedule. On the bright side, Robin Paul demonstrated where her son gets some of his fire from.
"We all are competitive," she said. "Very, very, very."
The same could be said about both sides in the lockout, though at this late juncture they seem just as interested in cannibalizing their own as the other side. Stern's levy on Arison marked the third time he's lightened an owner's pocket for talking out of school about the lockout — Charlotte's Michael Jordan and Washington's Ted Leonsis had already contributed $100,000 each to league coffers — but the extra-heavy hit might reflect more than the commissioner's growing impatience with rule breakers. Though Arison later endorsed the league's party line about the tweet being taken out of context, it's clear that his real sin was exposing the owners' less-than-unified stance.
Arison paid plenty to bring LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami and made plenty in return, not just for his franchise, but everywhere the Heat played last season. Even if the league's claim that 22 teams are losing money is correct, successful teams such as the Heat, Knicks, Lakers and Bulls can't be thrilled with the prospect of losing an entire season of profits to help the poorer franchises squeeze a more favorable deal from the players. But desperate as the fine made Stern look in his bid to hold ownership together, he still has a much easier task at the moment than his counterparts at the union.
The 400-plus members of the players association are being tugged in different directions by executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher. They staked out different positions on the central question in the negotiations — what percentage of basketball revenues the players will settle for — and the campaigning behind the scenes has grown uglier by the day. Fisher has been accused of secretly negotiating a deal with Stern to get the players to agree to a 50-50 split in exchange for a cushy job with the league down the road. The rumors grew so loud he was forced to respond to the players in an email, saying, "There have been no side agreements, no side negotiations or anything close."
For his part, Hunter has been adamant about the players keeping 52 percent — a drop from the 57 percent they got in the last agreement — which would still transfer more than $1 billion back to the owners in any new deal. He walked out of a bargaining meeting last week to dramatize his threat the players won't consider a penny less, but the players' weakening position suggests it was little more than grandstanding. At this point, most insiders and likely even the players themselves know the final deal will get made at 50-50 or not at all. Hunter's intransigence has led to speculation that he's taking a hard line to impress players and hang onto his job as much as he's worried about theirs. If the result is a bad deal — and whenever it's finalized, it likely will favor the owners — at the very least it gives him an alibi.
There's a growing sense that the players would vote to take the deal at 50-50, since the only other option is to walk away, decertify the union, and take their fight to the courts. That would effectively wipe out the season, which has also led some players to question why the union didn't exercise that option over the summer, when some leverage might have made a difference. Instead, it's the owners doing most of the squeezing. Players will lose $350 million because of the canceled games this month, and the threat of sacrificing another round of games, likely followed by the owners putting an even worse deal on the table, should have the desired effect.
Stern holds most of the cards, and all he has to do is hold the owners together for a little longer. Buying that loyalty doesn't always come cheap, but as even Arison would likely concede whenever the deal gets done, it's rarely a bad investment.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.