A couple of hours after David Stern threatened to turn the NBA into a scab league, Patrick Ewing went on "Larry King Live." The president of the NBA Players Association wanted to explain his union's side to American sports fans. The problem was, American sports fans were watching the Fiesta Bowl.
This is pure Ewing. He's tone deaf when it comes to public relations. But I'll take him over Stern any day.Wednesday, the players vote on the commissioner's alleged solution, a scheme that relieves owners of their responsibility as businessmen. Ewing may lose this fight. But he's fought a good one.
He believes what he believes. He hasn't had to apologize. He hasn't changed his principles for the spinmasters. He said the same thing Monday night on Larry King he said by phone Saturday afternoon.
"I think we'll have a season," Ewing was saying. "I don't think it's in anyone's interest not to."
This wasn't one of his many playoff predictions, issued to pacify the press as he made his way from the practice facility to his getaway car. This was just common sense.
Then again, common sense has been in short supply since Stern locked out players back in July. When Ewing called on Saturday, the players had just completed a proposal that would do what no other major sports union has done: grant substantial salary rollbacks enforced by a strong cap. It would virtually eliminate the $100 million deals the owners can't seem to refuse. Under the proposal, it would be another six years before the players could make the same percentage of revenue they made last year.
"Personally, I think we have given too much," Ewing said. "But we're trying to bridge the gap, to get a deal."
That's more than could be said for the owners, the genuises who can't trust themselves to run a $2 billion business.
"We've given everything they asked for, addressed every issue," Ewing said. "But once again they're saying it's not enough. Well, when is it enough? When?"
I've never been a big Patrick Ewing fan. I always thought he suffered deficits in leadership and charisma. But three months after the players were supposed to fold, a half year into this lockout, I find something very big in the big man.
There are about 470 NBA players. Maybe a half-dozen have voiced some displeasure with their leadership. "No one expected us to be as unified as we've been," Ewing said. "I think that's a shock to a lot of people."
He's lost more money than any single player, almost half his $18 million salary. And what he's lost in real dollars, he's received in ridicule.
It is a thankless job, defending millionaire ballplayers. Michael Jordan, who made an industry of his image, wouldn't do it. Jayson Williams, who seems to be auditioning as a talk-show host, wouldn't do it. But Ewing did. And the job he's done is worthy of respect.
"I don't care how much money I lose or what kind of ridicule I get," he said. "I mean, sure, there's been days when I think, 'What the hell am I doing? I don't need the headache.' But I'd do this all over again....I care about the players. I'm fighting for what I believe in, the players' rights."
Of course, the owners have rights, too. First and foremost, as Ewing said, "is the right to tell a player, 'We don't feel you're worth the money."'
The owners are daring captains of industry until they have to make a decision. Then they want the players to save them from themselves. Ewing thinks that's wrong. And he didn't need his agent, David Falk, to tell him that.
"I consult with him," Ewing said of Falk. "That's what I pay him for, and I pay him very well. But all this stuff about David telling me to do this is coming from small-minded people trying to insult my intelligence, basically saying I can't think for myself. At the end of the day, the decision is mine. I make the decision."
Ewing said union chief Billy Hunter approached him at the end of the '97 season and asked him to run for union president. Ewing had been active in the union for two years then, since he and Jordan and other big-ticket Falk clients banded together to kill a deal that former union boss Simon Gourdine had cut with the league. Gourdine, who was a deputy commissioner in the NBA before joining the labor movement, didn't consult with his rank and file nearly as much as David Stern. Gourdine's deal included luxury taxes that would have made the big deals impossible.
"It was a horrible deal," said Ewing.
The following year, $100 million contracts became common. And however much the public and the press despise all the too-rich, too-soon ballplayers, these newly minted millionaires owe Ewing a big debt.
Ewing has done nothing for his image here. Then again, he never had much of an image.
A few months ago, he said: "We're fighting for our lives." The remark offended a lot of people who can't play ball for a living. "They give me flak when I say we're fighting for our livelihoods, but it's true,' said Ewing. "This is our livelihoods. Yeah, I'm financially secure, but some other guys aren't."
The players lost every battle of image or spin. "No matter what we do we're gonna get heat," said Ewing.
And a lot of it was cheap heat. First, they were unpatriotic for not promoting another Dream Team while being locked out. Then their cell phones became props of arrogance and wealth. Their conference in Las Vegas -- certainly not the first consortium of businessmen to meet in the conventioneer's capital -- was said to convey an inappropriate image.
"I don't care where we met," Ewing said of the meeting that drew 247 players. "We had a big turnout. That's all that matters to me."
Greedy players are visible. Greedy owners are not. "Nobody even knows what any of the owners look like," said Ewing.
They only know Stern, the commissioner who vacations in Aspen. "He makes what, about $10 million a year?" said Ewing."How come nobody's talking about capping his salary?"