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The NBA Feud: Through a Looking Glass

The most important thing in any labor dispute is to pick a side, then be furious about the unreasonable position of the other side.

So it is that we come face to face with the troublesome labor brouhaha involving National Basketball Association players and team owners. Earlier this week, it was announced that the regular season, scheduled to start Nov. 3, would not begin on time. At least two weeks will be lost.

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This ends a 51-year streak of 35,001 consecutive games in the heretofore labor-tranquil NBA. By far the greatest strides have been made under commissioner David Stern, a man of enormous talent and cleareyed vision. That's why he makes $7 million a year.

In the great American tradition, our quest is to lay blame.

To understand whom we should draw and quarter, it is first necessary to understand where the fault doesn't lie: not with the players and not with the owners. Rather, it lies within us.

To wit, it is easy to excoriate the selfish, greedy, and way-too-full-of-themselves players. Of course they make unseemly sums. Highest paid is Michael Jordan who earns $33.14 million a year. That's more than some of you make in two years, or even three in a few cases. Second is Patrick Ewing of the Knicks, who lives on $20.5 million. That's why Jordan always picks up the dinner check.

It's nonsense, certainly, that other players we basically don't know make bundles. Bobby Phills gets $2.9 million, Dean Garrett $1.8 million, and Ivano Newbill - huh? - gets $272,250. Gary Paxton makes $10.51 million. Are you sure you know who he is and where he plays?

Yet, the salient point is they have special skills. They cannot be replaced. There are no equals to Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, or young sensation Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. Contrast what they do with what we do. Almost all of us can be replaced today because there are plenty who can do what we do tomorrow.

Conversely, who will ever replace Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon ($11.15 million)? No wannabes ever replaced Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, or Wilt Chamberlain.

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Since the players have irreplaceable talent, it can be argued that they are underpaid because they are priceless. It's like insuring a Picasso for $50 million. What good does that do if it's stolen? We don't want the money. We want the painting.

In fairness, we all want to earn as much as we can. If your boss says, "I am going to double your salary," will your response be, "Oh, no, I'm not worth it?" Please. Your response will be to click your heels. NBA players are no different.

Similarly, team owners are stunningly unique because they have found ways to make oodles of money - none of them made it initially in sports - and they are willing to take the substantial risk that grown men wearing short pants will succeed. Owners should be honored and sainted for providing us with entertainment and thousands with employment. Instead, they are vilified as greedy schmucks. Not fair.

The owners are competitive people and they keep giving the players too much money in search of victory. Team salary cap is $26.9 million but 24 of the 29 teams are over it - legally. Commish Stern contends many teams are losing money.

Sports are different from other businesses because competitive balance has to be maintained. Fans want games, not mismatches. The problem is money talks and invariably wins. The Bulls, for example, paid their 15 players $65,830,670 last season. Vancouver's payroll is $25,637,110. The Bulls won the NBA title last season and Vancouver sucked wind. Amazing.

In the past season, the owners spent 57 percent of basketball revenues on player salaries. It keeps going up. They want a cap of 48 percent. That's fair. The players want no cap. That's fair.

Which is why all this is our fault. It is called capitalism. Money greases life. Nothing wrong with that. We hope that it in turn goes for good works. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. If you played in the NBA, would you want to earn the most you could? If you were an owner, would you want to make the most you could? Hey, you, Pinocchio, zip your lip.

So since the owners and players are doing exactly what we would do, what would we do?

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address:

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