NEW YORK – When several of the NBA’s biggest stars march into the most important negotiating session in the history of the sport on Friday, there promises to be twisting of truths and fuzzy math and conservative owners determined to deliver themselves a dramatic redistribution of wealth. The biggest lie will go untouched, unchallenged.
Kobe Bryant(notes) and LeBron James(notes), Dwight Howard(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) are the most underpaid and undercompensated people in these labor negotiations. They make far too little, and truth be told, most of their teammates make far too much.
For everything they do to drive TV ratings and gate receipts, the global advancement and relentless news coverage, it’s a farce that the elite of the elite have to listen to so many sorry, sloppy owners tell them they deserve rollbacks on present contracts and deserve future ones to be slashed. These stars are the NBA. They’re everything.
Nowhere in sports is the superstar more vital than basketball, because the ball’s forever in the star's hands and a singular talent has the most transformational impact. Let owners bid on the true value the elite stars bring to a franchise, to the league, and Wade was asked where he believes the bidding would rise per season?
“I’m sure it would get to $50 million,” Wade told Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday afternoon.
He’s right, and there’s still a compelling case that it wouldn’t properly compensate what a Kobe Bryant, a LeBron James, even means far beyond his own team. Privately, Jerry Buss has told people that Bryant – who will make a league-high $25 million this season under his current contract terms – is worth perhaps $70 million a year to the Los Angeles Lakers. James has been the most prodigious talent – the compelling serial character – the sport’s manufactured. This list is short, but the impact is immense. This is the largely unspoken truism of labor talks: The superstars are wildly underpaid, and the largely interchangeable rank-and-file players make far too much money.
[Yahoo Sports Radio: Wade on whether Heat will return to Finals]
“In terms of driving revenue, if the NBA had no cap, the compensation would be totally different,” Wade said. “Like baseball, where they have no cap, you see the players that they feel fill arenas, that people come out to see, A-Rod, those kind of guys, look at how much money they make on their deals.
“You’ve got guys – starting with Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal(notes), and Kobe and LeBron – all players that individually people wanted to come to see. And wanted to just have a glimpse, just one glimpse, to be able to say that I’ve seen that person play. For what they’ve done for the game, what they’ve done for organizations, I don’t think you can really put a dollar amount on it.”
Before planning to stay for Friday’s labor meeting with ownership, Wade had been here promoting a product called Court Grip that he played a part in researching and refining. Players wipe it on the bottom of their sneakers, a traction formula that allows solid footing and sharp cuts even on the dustiest and dirtiest of gymnasium floors. Truth be told, the NBA gives Wade and his peers an unparalleled stage for these kind of endorsements, so yes, the ability to earn outside money comes as a direct byproduct of the NBA’s machine.
Nevertheless, the league’s proposal to curb salary includes a combination of cutting into future deals and rolling back current ones. The league doesn’t want max contracts that go beyond $20 million a year anymore, but privately owners and executives know those superstar deals are the biggest bargain in the NBA. The owners are chasing the salaries on everyone else, and that’s why the union exists. That’s why Bryant and James and, yes, Dwyane Wade understand that the fight has to be bigger than themselves.
In the end, the NBA is a one-man, one-vote labor membership. Why are Roger Mason(notes) and Maurice Evans(notes) such important voices on the Players Association's executive committee? Because they’re mostly representative of the everyman in the union. They’re forever fighting to keep guaranteed contracts, to keep some semblance of security. They need the stars to get them there, to hold the line on the powerful owners.
“We understand the position we’re in,” Wade said. “This whole labor thing for us is about the game, about all the players in the game. Not just the top tier, not just the lower tier. All the players. We’re all wrapped up in together. They need us, just like we need them on our teams.”
So much of this labor fight is constructed around those Miami Heat, the sudden concentration of talent glomming together on big-market teams. As one owner told Yahoo! Sports this summer, “We don’t want a league where there are four or five great teams, and the rest of us are the Washington Generals.” That’s an exaggeration, but make no mistake: The formation of the Heat galvanized so many owners, despite the fact that they all prospered financially with the hype, the sellouts, everything that came with James, Wade and the Heat.
Such loathing and disdain those Heat inspired, and it wasn’t until Wade climbed onto that smoky stage with James and Chris Bosh(notes) at the July 2010 fan party that the original Heat star became a target of scorn right along with James. Asked if he regretted the visual that came to embody the excesses of these Heat, Wade had a touch of defiance still in his voice.
“I think people used that as an excuse,” Wade said. “If you wanted that to be an excuse, they used it as one. To us – and I would do it all over again – we were celebrating for our community. We celebrated for Miami.”
It happened to be the start of everything together for the Heat, the most peculiar and wild ride the sport’s ever witnessed. They stood there together in July, posing, preening and made it all the way until that Game 6 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. Every day, Wade and James marched together into the interview rooms, talking side by side in a most symbolic showing.
“No matter what, me and LeBron were going to show a united front,” Wade said. “I don’t care what you say about him, or what you say about me, I don’t care what you say about the Miami Heat. We’re together. And we’re the leaders of this team. We’re going to show, win or lose, that we still believe, still trust in each other.”
Now, Wade and James could be together on Friday in the negotiating session with David Stern and all those owners that resent the Heat, resent Pat Riley, and yet deep down understand this: As much as anyone, they are the NBA. They’re the sport. These owners can cry poverty, insist they deserve a bigger cut of the revenue, but they won’t be the most unjustly compensated men in the room.
Perhaps people don’t want to hear it, but Dwyane Wade and LeBron James and Kobe Bryant promise to take the biggest hit of all in these negotiations.
No one needs to feel sorry for them, but fair is fair. Everyone else is expendable, interchangeable, but the stars changed everything in the NBA. Fifty million dollars a season? For them, a start anyway.
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