Dark NHL helps NBA see the light


AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - Over the weekend, during the break between games of the NBA Finals, the league and the players union interrupted their finger-pointing long enough to actually meet and seriously discuss a labor agreement to replace the one that expires at the end of this month. As tip-off for last night's Game 5 approached, there was optimism for the first time in months about avoiding a lockout.

Congratulations, then, are in order for commissioner David Stern, for union chief Billy Hunter and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his corresponding union boss, Bob Goodenow.

In destroying their sport, the NHL combatants may have saved someone else's. Maybe the two should get a cut of the NBA's deal, especially since (as both sides admit), there's plenty to go around.

That's part of the reason the NBA is closing in on the most pointless work stoppage of all time, which is saying something. Everybody involved, including the fans, has to know that.

Saner heads seem to be prevailing, and the reason appears obvious. A quick glance would indicate that the wake-up call was the barbs tossed back and forth during the Finals by Stern (last weekend in San Antonio) and Hunter (a few days later in the Detroit suburbs ). The exchange, as it turned out, only sucked additional life out of a series almost completely devoid of drama.

After that, they both seemed to realize the futility of hashing it out in public was getting them nowhere; the hot-button issues being flung about (hello, age limit) were not even the ones that were going to make or break the labor deal, and fans were beginning to catch on to that.

But above that? Not to read anyone's minds, but you have to figure the NHL's act of self-immolation had to have scared everybody straight.

These days, the only reason anyone mentions the NHL is to rip it mercilessly for its stupidity. No one talks about missing it, hating it, swearing off of it, burning people in effigy over it. It's invisible. Spelling bees would outdraw it; in fact, they probably already have. Does anyone, for instance, even realize that some team would be parading around some rink with the Stanley Cup about now?

The NBA is a thousand times more of a national topic of conversation than is the NHL. Problem is, the conversation in many quarters is negative. People pour time, energy, emotion and money into expressing their disdain for the sport. And yet it's in as good a shape as any major sport, all things considered, only notably below the NFL.

Imagine how ferocious the anti-NBA sentiment would be if they shut things down like the NHL. Never mind the people who swear the sport would be forgotten, like the NHL. The NBA would undergo a public flogging the likes of which has never been seen, possibly even surpassing what baseball endured during the strike that canceled the 1994 World Series.

It came close to that level of abuse during the 1998-99 lockout - and there were better reasons for a labor conflict then than there is now. Fans know it, or they do if they"ve been paying attention. The union, trounced in that lockout, has spoken glowingly of the agreement it felt forced into then, insisting that there's no need to change anything about it now. The NBA's proposals - to alter contract length and size and to institute further luxury taxes for teams over the salary cap - don't seem like much more than an attempt to grab even more than they did six years ago.

Yet nothing anyone has discussed sounds compromise-proof, and that's likely the reason for reported progress in the talks. It's as if everybody on both sides suddenly had the light bulb go on over their heads: None of this is worth shutting the league down again, risking a wrath that will top 1998-99 - and repeating the mistakes and miscalculations of the NHL.

The nuclear option triggered by the NHL owners backfired. They had less to lose, in a sense, than the NBA does. Call the NBA owners (and to a lesser extent this time around, the players) greedy, but they"re not stupid. Nor are they blind.

If the NBA makes a deal and avoids a work stoppage, the NHL will not have died in vain.

NBA Finals

San Antonio vs. Detroit

Best of seven; *-if necessary

All games on chs. 2, 7

(San Antonio leads series, 3-2)

Game 1: San Antonio, 84-69

Game 2: San Antonio, 97-76

Game 3: Detroit, 96-79

Game 4: Detroit, 102-71

Yesterday: San Antonio, 96-95, OT

Tomorrow: at San Antonio, 9 p.m.

*Thursday: at San Antonio, 9 p.m.

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