The typically rosy tone of David Stern's tipoff conference call was mostly gone Friday, replaced by some more gloomy proclamations even as the commissioner admitted what should be obvious: 'Tis the season for rhetoric.
Stern didn't back away from his assertion a day earlier that the league is seeking to cut player salaries by $750 million to $800 million in a new collective bargaining agreement -- though he retroactively tried to downplay it as not news, since the figure was included in the owners' initial proposal to the players in January. He also confirmed a CBSSports.com report that contraction is "on the table" in negotiations with the players as a last-ditch means to restore competitive balance and profitability.
"The issue of contraction is one that has to be discussed in the context of collective bargaining with the players," Stern said. "Whether or if there are markets where there may not be buyers for teams that are looking to be sold, that raises the issue of contraction. It’s sensitive subject for me because I've spent 27 years in this job working very hard not only to maintain all of our teams, but along the way add a few. But I think that’s a subject that will be on the table with the players as we look to see what [is] the optimum way to present our game and are there cities and teams that cannot make it in the current economic environment. We’re not spending a lot of time on it."
But perhaps the most revealing moment in Stern's second straight day under oath in the court of labor negotiations came when he admitted what veterans of past labor strife know all too well: Nothing gets done until the last minute, and now is when the rhetoric runs deep.
After Stern's $750 million rocket made its way to the National Basketball Players Association offices Thursday -- and to union chief Billy Hunter's ear on the road -- the union issued a statement from Hunter that read, in part:
"If the owners maintain their position, it will inevitably result in a lockout and the cancellation of part or all of the 2011-2012 season. The players and union will prepare accordingly."
When I asked Stern if he shared this grim view, the commissioner said, "I don't believe that Billy wrote that because he wouldn't threaten me with a lockout And all I can say is that's what negotiations are for and we're looking forward to our next negotiating session."
So, this is par for the course, I asked?
"Absolutely," Stern said. "It's classic negotiating rhetoric, probably on both sides."
Of all the words spoken in the past 48 hours about the NBA's labor strife, those last four were the most revealing and important: "probably on both sides."
As Stern has pointed out numerous times, this isn't his first rodeo. He's participated in so many bargaining sessions that he could play the accompanying background music in his sleep. If I'm scoring this one at home, I say both sides have done a masterful job so far. The union has done an effective job of discrediting the owners' cries of poverty, and Stern is at the top of his game when it comes to tilting the negotiating table this way and that until the final result lands in the middle: a deal everyone can live with.
Stern and his army of lawyers and accountants threw everything including the kitchen sink in the owners' first proposal. On Thursday, he went public with just how much owners seek to reduce player salaries. Now, the old-fashioned trick of threatening to nuke struggling franchises -- and dozens of corresponding player jobs -- has entered the equation.
By the time he's finished, Stern will have given so much of that back to the players that they'll feel like they won. As Stern said Friday, "We know we're going to get a deal done."
Just brace yourselves, because there's a whole lot of rhetoric left to be spewed between now and June 30, 2011.
Somewhere underneath it all, there will be a pretty interesting basketball season.