In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on October 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm

I’m having a tough time trying to figure out if anybody cares whether the NBA season begins anytime soon, or if it ever begins.

Oh sure, the truly die-hard fans will be disappointed if there’s no NBA season. And arena vendors, lower level team employees, and local bars and restaurants will feel the loss of an NBA season right where it hurts most—in the wallet. But do the players or owners care? Not much. That’s the reality when billionaires and millionaires fight over their share of the league pie.

Part of the problem is the NBA’s image. As the casual fan sees it, the games don’t really begin until the fourth quarter, and the season doesn’t really begin until the playoffs start. Right? Right!

Part of the problem is with the teams. Most of them are NOT worth watching in person or on TV. Seriously, the Clippers, the Bobcats, the Cavaliers, the Kings, the “you insert any name other than Lakers, Celtics, or Heat here.”

Part of the problem is with the players. The days of Jordan, Bird, and Magic seem so distant now. And, the likes of Kobe, Lebron and friends in Miami, Melo, and so on, create an ambivalence that hasn’t been seen in the NBA since the 1981 Finals were buried on late night TV—tape delayed until after your late local news. I suspect that it’s a combination of their off-court antics and their perceived “money first” attitudes.

The “streetball” games with the travelling Kevin Durant highlight shows have been a positive, but it doesn’t help that many of the players seem to be lining up “Plan B” gigs in Europe and China. They’re making sure they get paid no matter what happens in the negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement. At least, the “big” names will get paid. Delonte West might not be the only player looking for work at the Home Depot if the season doesn’t start on time. The first potentially missed NBA paychecks are due in November. We’ll see who’s motivated to make a deal in December or January.

Part of the problem is with the owners. As expected, they want it their way or no way. And, they seem way too willing to embrace the NHL’s “scorched earth” policy of 2004-05 when it cancelled the entire season. In reality, six current NBA owners (Washington’s Ted Leonsis for example) also own the NHL club in the same city, and five other owners share an arena with their NHL counterpart. Trust me, these guys either lived through the ’04-’05 NHL shutdown, or they learned from watching their hockey brethren that they will get as much as they want if they are willing to wait. The NHL players folded in ’05 and accepted a “hard salary cap.” No reason not to expect the same from the NBA players in ’11 or ’12. It could all depend on how influential guys like the Wizards’ Ted Leonsis or the Knicks’ James Dolan are. (Needless to say, they won’t mention that the NHL deal is up next year, and the hockey world itself could be facing a replay of ’05.)

Recent reports do indicate the NBA owners might be backing away from a “hard” cap, and they simply want to keep a greater share of the total league income from TV, tickets, merchandise, etc. That to me just hints that the owners want business as usual, but with more cash to waste on guaranteed multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts for guys like the overpaid, underperforming Rashard Lewis of the Wizards (maybe not for long though).

And, last but never least, part of the problem is with the fans themselves. And, this could be critical for the future of the NBA. The basic sports fan knows that he can survive without a certain sport for an extended period of time. We all lived through the NHL shutdown six years ago. Many of us have lived through various shortened baseball (’81 & ’94) and football seasons (’82 & ‘87) and the NBA half-season of 1999. It’s surprisingly easy to live minus an entire league for an entire season. Of course, we fans are foolishly quick to forgive the players and owners who spurned us, and flock back to the sport in great numbers as soon as the doors to the stadium are re-opened. The best example of this is the current NFL season which is enjoying strong attendance and big TV ratings despite a lockout that eliminated or curtailed the entire off- and pre-seasons and threatened, at the very least, a partial loss of the regular season.

Fans often forget that the money the billionaires and millionaires play with belongs to… wait for it… THE FANS. They can, but seldom do, vote with their wallets. A resounding, “No, Thank You,” to the return of the NBA next February or next September or next whenever, could send a message heard in all corners of pro sports.

Sadly, the fans will abdicate their power to the owners once again. The same owners who can never seem to police themselves well enough to avoid thrashing their golden goose within an inch of its life. The same owners who always seem to find loopholes that allow them to manipulate, outmaneuver, and, in essence, defeat their own plans designed to keep them from doing what they do best—bending the salary cap and wasting money.

It will be interesting to see if the NBA owners are willing to follow the NHL lead of six seasons ago and completely pull the plug on ’11-‘12. Technically, only six of the owners can afford to lose the entire basketball season, assuming, of course, their NHL teams can provide enough of a financial crutch to lean on through lean times. Larger market teams could also be better positioned overall to ride out the storm. But, what about the small market clubs? It wouldn’t shock me to find out that Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Indiana, Milwaukee, Utah, Memphis, New Orleans, ad infinitum, are all losing money with a normal revenue stream in place. How can they possibly hang on with NO revenue at all?

Will there still be an NBA season? Will there still be an NBA? Will there still be anyone left who cares if there isn’t?

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at:

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