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NBA players need to get a new dose of reality

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SALT LAKE CITY — Congratulations, NBA players, you've killed the golden goose, at least for the near future and perhaps the entire season.

You've entered what commissioner David Stern calls, to reach for hyperbole, "nuclear winter."

It's a season on the brink — of having to get a real job, and good luck with that in today's economy.

This day has been a long time coming. We all saw it, even if you didn't.

Call it a market correction. Or a reality check.

Remember, for the rest of us, it's not as though this is something truly important, something upon which the nation depends — like the NFL.

You've got to hand it to the players, don't you. They pulled off quite a feat. In this day of Wall Street protestors and attacks on the rich, they've managed to turn the owners — rich tycoons all — into the good guys.

The players can take their mid-level exceptions and luxury taxes and soft caps and shower caps and escrows and CBAs and BRIs and RBIs and whatever and kick them into the empty upper bowl. This whole affair, which has been building for years, has grown as tedious as a Clippers-Kings game in December.

There is definitely a disconnect between the fans — remember them? — and players.

This is what players think the NBA labor dispute is about: Putting food on the table, to quote a former player.

This is what the rest of us think this is about: How many Escalades they can put in their 16-car garage.

The other day, Billy Hunter, the players' union director, actually described the current state of affairs by using the words "extremely unfair." The word "unfair" should never exit his mouth. Talk about losing perspective.

The perception is that players are greedy. Here they've got the best deal in professional sports: 50 percent or more of basketball-related revenues (highest in sports) — everything from parking to gate receipts to Coke sales — an average salary of between $5 million and $6 million per year (highest in sports) and — this is the clincher — guaranteed contracts, plus a soft cap that allows teams to make the richest players richer and the best teams better.

And yet when 22 of 30 owners claim they are losing money, the players complain that they might have to give back a little money; they might have to take what the rest of us call a pay cut.

Here's the way it is in real-world terms: The guys who put up the money to fund a business (owners), don't give 50 percent of revenues to the employees (players). They're the ones who incur all the risk by funding franchises and arenas and everything else that goes into it.

The owners played a big part in getting the league into this mess in the first place, but the players pushed them into it, and now they need to tighten their belts, as it were, like everyone else in America. As it is, they've exposed themselves to the possibility of a whole new set of rules.

The players union is decertifying so it can free itself of legal restraints and take their case to the courts. This could backfire. As long as there was a union, their contracts signed under the old CBA remained valid; but with the decertification of the union, their contracts could be voided. That means they would have to negotiate contracts under the new CBA, which could include changes regarding free agents, lengths of contracts, guaranteed contracts, and so forth.

While the players and owners are making their demands for the new CBA, fans might as well make their own list. If fans have their way, the new CBA should include the following:

A hard salary cap. Something must be done to create competitive balance. The NBA is clearly a league of haves and have-nots. Very few teams have real shots at a championship; that's not good for the league. Teams can exceed the cap by paying a luxury tax, a portion of which is given to the other teams to help them keep up. It doesn't work. The big-market teams can easily afford the luxury tax and, since few teams pay into the luxury tax pot, it's not enough to help the league's smaller-market teams.

No guaranteed salaries. You know the deal: NBA players signed grossly rich contracts, then don't deliver but are paid in full anyway because the league's contracts are guaranteed. The NFL can cut players to save money or because a player isn't performing; the NBA keeps paying. Last year Rashard Lewis made $19 million, Jermaine O'Neal $23M, Elton Brand $14.9M; Ben Gordon $10M. Fans are paying exorbitant ticket prices to keep these guys on the bench.

A shorter season. Do we really need 82 regular-season games? Does anyone even pay attention to the NBA before, say, March? No.

More restrictions on player movement. Tighten up free agent rules. Get rid of mid-level exceptions and the luxury tax (see above). The small-market teams aren't in this business to develop talent for the big-market teams. Again, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Increase the minimum age requirement from 19 to 20 years old. The league throws away millions on kids who are not mature enough to handle the money, the competition and the independence. They wind up earning millions just to sit on the bench. Use the extra cash to pay proven performers.

An improved revenue-sharing program. The NBA's distribution of wealth is weak. They should adopt the NFL's system, which produces tremendous parity.

Those are the fans' demands — or they should be. Not that anybody asked.

email: drob@desnews.com