The summer it all went sideways, when the greatest players of the 2003 draft class created their own cartel shifting the balance of power, a pretty ferocious sucker punch straight in the gut, hit NBA owners. They were too stunned to cry out. Never before had their influence been questioned, highjacked or devalued. It was worse than any NBA Finals loss because it dented their exclusivity and privilege.
“The rich are different than you and me.” Nearly a century ago, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald came to that conclusion and he was right. The rich are different than everyone else and not just because of their wealth. Much of what they do never sees the light.
NBA owners are proud members of the billionaire boys club, a segregated place, a closed world where blinds cover the glass- even the racism of Donald Sterling could not intrude upon it. But in the summer of 2010, the owners, a defiant and arrogant group, had been out maneuvered by their own athletes. That didn’t sit well, not at all. So the summer of the Big Three became the lockout of 2011.
To make sure the Big Three would die a quick death the owners proposals during the bargaining sessions of the lockout included restrictive rules they were not willing to compromise on. The owners had a hard line perspective and would not budge from their dated view of players. It went something like this: players want the most money and will go to the end of the earth to get it. The End.
However. This was not 1990 in which greed was a driving force for professional athletes. Back then athletes wanted to get as much as they could for as long as they could only because their professional lives were part of an ambiguous world. Careers came and went. Players had wives, children, medical costs, mortgages.
But the Jay Z prospectus- if life gives you lemons you don’t make lemonade you go out and buy every damned lemon grove in the Northern hemisphere- was not only attractive and intoxicating but a blueprint for the modern NBA player. Check yourself, they said. You don’t own us. You pay us. It was no longer make your own money. It was be your own money. Players began to see themselves as originator’s of their own business plan, one in which they had the ability to direct their careers as well as stay connected to one another.
Cornered, the owner’s knew they could not legislate friendship. But they could institutionalize a penalty system. Max contracts, yes. But only two per team. Three max contracts and the only players available would be the mediocre ones taking minimum salaries. Athletes, driven by greed, would go elsewhere to get paid. The owner’s couldn’t imagine a new world order of friendships and salaries whereas one was no greater than the other.
The owners had 3 or 4 years to be patient. Then, absent of compromise, it would come apart. Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh had opt outs in 2014. One would leave for more money. Right? Or more power. It had to be true, the NBA universe had to return to normal.
But on Saturday Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh opted out for the sole reason of taking less money.
It was not what the owners understood a NBA player would do. Certainly not two All-Star’s. Certainly not a Hall of Famer like Dwayne Wade. It’s one thing to do it in San Antonio, a small market, and with players who are not in their primes or who were not raised to embrace the capitalist ethic of America. But in Miami?
And there is one more thing the owners didn’t consider.
Michael Jordan ruined it for everyone who came after him. He won 6 championships and lost 0. That is how greatness is articulated these days, numbers no one can possibly reach. Today’s players are judged by an unrealistic measurement. How many titles do you have? How many NBA Finals have you been in? So there is a choice. Do you want to win? Or do you want the most money?
Thousands a miles removed from Miami, another NBA player was faced with the money vs. winning decision. Rudy Gay of the Sacramento Kings opted into his contract, not out. It will pay him 19 million dollars this coming season. He could have just as easily taken the Dwayne Wade route. Less to get more. He could have signed with a contender and be feted by ESPN as selfless. Same with Amare Stoudamire who opted into a contract that will pay him 20 million dollars. If he opted out, signed for less, the Knicks would have had flexibility. They could have brought Carmelo Anthony back and added another talent. But Amare took the money.
Greed has its benefits, in small doses it does, but in the NBA if you want to win greed inhibits players from reaching their potential as a team. It keeps other players away and it turns a champion into a spectator and then into a footnote. No one hates losing like a player who has had a parade in his city once upon a time and then is forgotten. Really, players do have pride. And in this era of the NBA, players still have power.
The James/Wade/Bosh collective was revolutionary when it started. They have two titles and at the same time have been humbled by losses making their introductory press conference-pep rally seem ridiculous all these years later. It is hard to win in the NBA, so much has to go right. The Big Three have had to think of the group first and themselves second. They have had to manage the money and think about the talent they are surrounded with. And they have taught NBA owners a valuable thing. Don’t judge us by players you used to know. We are not them. We are you. We’re businessmen. We think about championships and costs.