As NBA Trading Deadline Looms, Teams Watch Their Pocketbook

Today is the NBA trade deadline. Teams have up until 3pm EST to make changes to their rosters to help propel them to the playoffs or move high-price players to other teams to lessen the payroll. But brewing amid all of this is a labor dispute between NBA owners and players that is threatening a lockout at the end of the 2010-2011 season. Host Michel Martin speaks with Dave Zirin, sports writer for The Nation, about how likely a work stoppage will be after season and what can be done to avoid it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a skier from Ghana, ice dancers from Israel - the Winter Games in Vancouver are not just for those from cold climates anymore. We'll learn more about these unlikely Olympians in just a few minutes. But first, basketball news. The NBA season just passed its unofficial halfway point after the league's all-star festivities last week end in Dallas. And today is another big day in the NBA, the deadline for teams to trade for players to bolster their rosters for a playoff push. Both of these events are also shadowed though by the possibility of a lockout after next season if the players and owners can't agree on a new contract.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we've called Dave Zirin. He's a sportswriter for the politics and culture publication, The Nation. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sportswriter, The Nation): Hey, great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So, you know, we don't often hear about the NBA kind of negotiating in public.

Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But it does seem like that there's - this is - there's more of this going on. It's a full 16 months before their the current contract expires. But here's David Stern, speaking at a press conference about showing the players the league's financial standing and how, in his view, it's not sustainable. Here it is.

Mr. DAVID STERN (Commissioner, National Basketball Association): What those numbers showed, give or take, was this year we're projecting a league-wide loss of about $400 million, and in each of the first four years of the deal, probably losses of a couple of hundred million, at least $200 million a year. Our response to the players was we don't want to play any guessing games about that. All of the data which supports that will be made available to you. So that we can have a robust and open dialogue about how we're going to develop together a sustainable business model.

MARTIN: So, first of all, just talk to me about just the atmospherics, about all this like...

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, it's pretty intense. It's David Stern saying half the teams in the NBA are losing money. This is not a sustainable business model. Therefore, we need lower salaries. So that's what this is going to come down to: money. Right now, the players get 57 percent of all the revenue that the NBA takes in. And that's what determines the salary cap for each team, the divvying up of that 57 percent. David Stern wants it down to 50 percent. And he is dead serious about doing it. His opening salvo to the union is basically: go ahead, make my day.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, there was apparently, Billy Hunter, who is the head of the Players Association, has been emailing them all the snarky comments that he can find. And apparently there was a it was reported on cbssports.com that an executive allegedly told - said that if they don't like the new max contracts, LeBron can play football, where he will make less than the new max. Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won't make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years. I'm sure that went over really well.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, it went over just fantastically. And Billy Hunter is also preparing the players 18 months in advance. Stern is putting out the early word, but Billy Hunter is too, because the last time there was a lockout was the 1998-99 season, and only a small fraction of players are still in the league from those days. And back then, it's widely thought that the reason why the players lost is that far too many NBA players with their huge contracts were living paycheck to paycheck, and that were feeling a tremendous pressure and couldn't really stand the heat.

And so Billy Hunter is starting right now and just saying, look, take a percentage of that paycheck and bank it because we're in for the long haul. Because remember, anytime you have a negotiation between owners and players, the owners always have an advantage because the TV money never stops. If there's a TV contract, the owners keep getting paid through that TV contract, whether they're broadcasting games or not.

MARTIN: Well, given and also on the other side of it, basketball players, as I understand it, are the highest-paid, on average, athletes in American sports...

Mr. ZIRIN: In team sports, yeah.

MARTIN: In team sports because, you know, teams are smaller and so forth. So, who do you think has the - what's the word I'm looking for - sort of a public relations advantage to this point. I mean, on the one hand...

Mr. ZIRIN: Great question.

MARTIN: ...they're saying this is not sustainable. On the other hand, the players - well paid, well known...

Mr. ZIRIN: It's a great question because there's an interesting parallel happening right now in the NFL where there also looks like there's going to be a lockout. And I think in that case, the NFL players have a huge advantage, largely because of the concussion issue and so many players who've turned up recently, who are just in terrible shape. And a lot of fans are just going to say, pay these people. Their bodies are just being destroyed. The NBA, the optics are a little bit different, of course, than an NFL player, who puts their body through such a terrible hardship to ply their craft. It's difficult...

MARTIN: NBA season is long, though. It's tiring. But you're right. There's not those constant collisions in...

Mr. ZIRIN: It's not the optics of a 55-year-old Earl Cambell who can't get out of his car and saying, we need to pay these folks. Most fans look at these things and say, it's billionaires versus millionaires, a pox on both their houses. And I think that's how it's going to be seen, that's how it's going to be played. But I think since we're talking about a lockout and strike, I think the onus is on the owners. They're the ones not making a deal.

Billy Hunter has already come forward and said we are willing to extend the existing deal, which a lot of people thought was a loser deal for the players when it was signed. So, we're willing to push ahead with this for the good at the game. And Billy Hunter has a pretty unimpeachable argument, where he says, if half the teams are losing money, what's it going to do to those markets if you lock us out and there's no sport?

MARTIN: Interesting. So, the NBA's trade deadline is today. Speaking of teams that are...

Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...losing.

Mr. ZIRIN: And in these trades, you're seeing one of the issues that I think is a good optic, if you'll, for David Stern. Because when you look at the trades it says everything about how the NBA is now a league of haves and have-nots. Teams that make money and teams that don't make money. And that's not a sustainable business model either if a team is perpetually just trying to shed money. So, all of these trades that you see they're all the same kind of way. It's not you have a good player, I have a good player, let's just switch him. It's - I want to loot your team for all of its talent and in return I'm going to give you expiring contracts.

MARTIN: What should we keep an eye on?

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, my goodness, Amare Stoudemire. That's going to be the jewel here. His agent has told the world, Amare is out of Phoenix, but a lot of the deals have already gone down where Amare would be a good fit. So, to me it's -the question is - will Amare Stoudemire be joining Dwyane Wade in a Miami Heat uniform. That's the big question that's left.

MARTIN: That's the big question that's left. And we also have to ask I'm going to ask you standby for our next conversation about the Olympics as well. But before we turn to our conversation about the players, you might not expect to see athletes, you might not expect to see from countries, you might not expect to see performing at the Winter Olympics. I do want to ask you about another big sports story, Tiger Woods...

Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: The disgraced golfer, Tiger Woods. We're trying to avoid cliches...

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...here and having too much fun at his expense, for what is, in fact, you know, a very difficult situation for him and his family. But, of course, as everybody probably knows, he has been taking a break from golf, out of the public eye because of...

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...it has emerged that he has had a number of relationships outside of his marriage.

Mr. ZIRIN: He's been rooming with Jimmy Hoffa. No one has seen the man.

MARTIN: Nobody's seen him. Well, there has been an effort too. So, anyway, he is scheduled to make remarks tomorrow.

Mr. ZIRIN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: It's a very tightly controlled situation, which just seems to be the Tiger way, only a few kind of invited, one camera, few invited sort of reporters. What what do you think he is going to say? Is there anything that he can say that would be helpful to his situation right now?

Mr. ZIRIN: I and nobody else have any idea what he is going to say. It's a big mystery. But I will tell you this - this could not be being handled worse. I think there are two kinds of people on this Earth right now. There are people who do not want to hear anything else about Tiger Woods. Who would say, look, Tiger Woods already ruined my Thanksgiving and my Christmas. I do not want to hear anymore about Tiger woods.

Then you have that segment of the population, we know they're there, they want their pound of flesh. They want Tiger crying in front of Oprah. They want him saying how sorry he is to the world. This press conference tomorrow, which is not really a press conference, it's a stenography conference - no questions are allowed. This is a situation where neither of those camps I described, will get their satisfaction. Because it's just going to throw more gasoline on the fire and it's going to raise the question well, when are you going to answer questions?

MARTIN: Why is he doing this?

Mr. ZIRIN: He is doing it because he thinks that media environment and the media rules don't apply to him. And so, he thinks that he lives in a media environment where he can get away with this. Because I think it absolutely breaks him, to have to be public. He's an incredibly private person and to be public like this just breaks him in two. He doesn't want to do it. He understands he has to do it.

But he is a shark, he is competitor. That's why he is also doing it opposite the Accenture Match Play Championship that's going on in Arizona. Accenture was the first big sponsor to dump Tiger Woods. Now all the attention goes away from Accenture and goes on to Tiger. I have heard people on the golf channel say there's no way Tiger would be that petty as to try to pull the wool out from under Accenture. And I'm just like - have you ever seen him on the golf course? He is a shark. It's not about pettiness, it's about payback.

MARTIN: Dave Zirin, a sports writer for The Nation. He's going to stay with us for just of couple of minutes.

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