PHILADELPHIA -- Once upon a time, collective bargaining actually saved the National Basketball Association, and did so at a moment when everyone agreed that it was, for the most part, a good thing.
It was 1983, and NBA teams were hemorrhaging money as their little, antiquated arenas, modest ticket prices, and more modest television revenues could not keep pace with salary increases made possible by the advent of free agency in the previous decade.
Things were bad, and there was serious talk of some franchises going out of business or, less drastic but not so appealing either, operating as second-division teams without hope of ever improving their station.
If that sounds quaint almost 30 years later -- this presaging of small market vs. big market battles and the impossibility of true parity on an uneven playing field -- it was anything but if you happened to operate, say, the Indiana Pacers, averaged 4,800 fans, and finished 45 games behind the best team in the Eastern Conference. (That team, by the way, was the Philadelphia 76ers. Told you it was a long time ago.)
Two men were able to change the dire outlook, however, when Larry O'Brien, the NBA commissioner, and Larry Fleisher, the lead counsel of the National Basketball Players Association, sat down and essentially invented the salary cap. They had some help from the lawyers, naturally, particularly a sharp NBA counsel named David Stern, but it was O'Brien and Fleisher who put the posturing aside and worked together to fix the things that were broken. Believe it or not, Congress occasionally operated that way then, too.
The agreement not only inaugurated a period of fiscal sanity, but it dovetailed with a stretch of basketball -- led by the Holy Trinity of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan -- during which the NBA reached its artistic height.
There have been important labor negotiations in basketball since then, and some work stoppages, but nothing to compare with what is happening at the moment as the league's owners play serious hardball in hopes of saving the game again. That, at least, is their point of view. The players believe that the owners are mostly fine, but have chosen this time to make a blatant money grab that will transform the NBA from a competitive arena in which the savvy owners prosper into a fixed game in which even the dolts can line their pockets.
The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between. NBA teams lost a combined $300 million last season, and to prevent that in the future, they want to bump their percentage of the league's revenue by cutting into the percentage that goes to pay the players. They also want to make it so expensive to exceed the salary cap that the so-called "soft" cap actually will become a very firm ceiling.
For instance, the champion Mavericks paid $16 million in luxury tax for last season. Under the league's proposal, the hit would have been more than double that, and if the Mavs were repeat offenders -- exceeding the threshold three times in five seasons -- that higher figure would be trebled to $111 million. Let Mark Cuban pay "that out of his Twitter revenue.
There are other issues, such as the midlevel cap exception and the length of the CBA itself, and restrictions on the length of player contracts, but the heart of the dispute is the simple matter of how the pot of gold is divided.
The players have some very good arguments. They point out that their salaries have merely kept pace with the rate of inflation, while the owners have sent their own operating expenses through the roof, often due to poor management. Having good arguments, however, is not the same as having leverage, and the players are coming to realize that.
The NBA owners look across the arena at what their NHL brethren were able to do -- at the expense of the entire 2004-05 season -- and that looks pretty good to them. The NHL came out of that shutdown with a hard salary cap and a new economic model that even made it possible for hockey to succeed in Canada.
As is the case with the NBA, the NHL players were being asked to pay for some really stupid moves by their league and didn't want to do so, but they also got terrible advice and failed to grasp the resolve of the owners. It turned out that the world "could go on without them for a while, much to their surprise.
The NBA players would be smart to study that lesson. They are going to lose this one, and probably lose it really badly. The league will get healthier for the owners, even if they can't fix the real problem, which is that there is no Johnson, Bird, and Jordan to save it this time. The golden age has been tarnished by a generation that believes one-on-one isolation play is the pinnacle of the sport and -- at least compared to the thriving college game -- the NBA has become an inferior spectacle manned by superior players. That's a tough exacta to hit, but the NBA has managed it somehow.
People just don't like the NBA as much as they once did, or not as many of them like it, anyway. You can chalk that up to economics, or demographics, or biorhythms, or simple fatigue, or whatever you like, but it's a fact.
The game has to reinvent itself. A good start would be doing what the new Sixers owners promised to do, and that is to make attending the NBA affordable for a family again. If the other owners apply their coming windfall to that mission, then the current labor war will get them something aside from that new condo on St. Kitts.
As for the bigger problem -- recapturing the magic, not to mention the Magic -- well, that will be a little tougher.