ORLANDO – After booking and attending more union meetings and collective bargaining sessions than any of them cared to attend last summer and autumn, members and officials of the National Basketball Players Association rested Friday.
That is, they cancelled their annual All-Star meeting, which had been scheduled for Friday afternoon. Reason: Nothing on the docket.
“This is the first time in a long time,” Billy Hunter, the union’s executive director.
A year ago, the NBPA meeting was a must-attend for both union members and NBA media, with early salvos fired at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles in what would become a five-month-long lockout. The subsequent grueling rounds of negotiations, posturing and legal threats before a new labor contract was reached between the owners and the players led directly to the current shortened 66-game season.
But by getting a deal shortly after Thanksgiving, the league was able to open on Christmas Day and preserve All-Star Weekend itself. With, naturally, some tradeoffs, like additional back-to-back games, the loss of practice time and what seems to be a spike in player injuries.
“I think it’s a little early yet [to judge the season],” Hunter told NBA.com. “We’ll be in a better position to make a judgment by the time we hit the playoffs. Right now, I just think it’s good that it’s back.”
Hunter said he believed the focus on injuries doesn’t take account for the freak nature of many – like Clippers guard Chauncey Billups blowing out an Achilles tendon – and attributes them incorrectly to the lockout and its aftermath. But he doesn’t agree the premise of some NBA head coaches, who joke that the players enjoy this schedule because it’s all games and few practices.
“If you’ve got ambitions on winning it,” the union chief said, “and you feel you have the horses to do it, and you need the coordination and synchronization, then you want to practice. Because you want to get to know one another and get to know the plays, etc. Just going out and going through the motion, the OJT [on-the-job training], I don’t know if that’s the right way to go about it.”
Besides, Hunter said, fatigue sets in from games too. Said Hunter: “[Deputy NBA commissioner] Adam Silver says, ‘They’re just adding two more games a month.’ But to the players, it doesn’t look like that. They think they’re playing many more games over a much shorter period.”
The new 10-year CBA has a clause allowing either side to re-open the deal after the 2016-17 season, a move both sides anticipate. Until then, they’ll split the proceeds (approximately 50-50 of basketball-related income) and rise or fall with the game’s popularity. At the moment, the NBA says its metrics – TV ratings, attendance, merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships and Internet traffic – all are trending up.
And Hunter, no longer in automatic-adversary role, agreed. “Everywhere I go, if I see 10 people, nine of them are coming up to me, shaking my hand, thanking me that we were able to resolve it and happy that the NBA is back in play,” he said. “I am surprised. It just goes to show the number of people who are interested in basketball and even the number of people who followed it through the lockout.”
It shows, too, that some of the fears about a fan backlash were overstated. The NBPA exec offered one explanation for people’s willingness to embrace the NBA anew. “Look at what’s happening in the world,” Hunter said. “It’s all inter-related. People are under stress, and one thing about stress: certain things excel in down times. Sports historically has sold. Things like alcohol and cosmetics – they don’t take a dip. It’s a distraction.
“Sports is a way for people to come and lose themselves for a few hours. They forget about their problems. They root for their teams and they have a catharsis.”
As long as fans are having that catharsis, the players’ union can skip its meeting. For a while, anyway.