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Party like it’s 1999

August 25, 2011

I was not dreaming when I wrote this
Hence it shall not go astray

And when I woke up this morning
I knew it would not be CBA day.

Prince, I trust, will indulge my remix.  Ah, the CBA, the thing that ties us, the NBA fans, to the owners and to the players.  No, I refer not to the effectively defunct Continental Basketball Association, which Isaiah Thomas and his partners ran into the ground, but rather to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the legal document that solidifies the business relationship between owners and players.  As of right now, the NBA faces a lockout, the likes of which has not been seen since the start of the tumultuous era following the Bulls’ dominance in the 1990s.

Sports bloggers report that the players’ union has decided to not vote.  Allegations fly between both sides claiming greed, victimization, and duplicity.  Various sports commentators have made arguments for and against.†

However, while browsing the current “literature” available on the internet, there appears to be a paucity of reminiscences about 1999 and the last lockout.  Hence, I invoke Prince again to lead us to those halcyon days pre-Y2K.

Let's party, baby

Picture the eve of 1999:  US President William Jefferson Clinton has recently been impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice.  The euro (€) is about to roll out in EU countries, replacing currencies such as the (French) franc and the Deutsche Mark.  A leap second is recorded.  In sum, powerful, world-shaping events happen left and right.  In the midst of this, the NBA lockout.

Purists will note that the CBA  had expired in 1998 and that, in fact, the lockout began in 1998.  True; however, the long-term impact in fans’ minds is that the season was shortened to just 1999.  The anticipation and anxiety felt prior to the lockout was somewhat diminished by the Bulls’ second three-peat, Michael Jordan’s retirement, and swirling trademill rumors—although said rumors did not reach fruition until 1999.  According to basketball reference.com, Tim Legler registered the last roster transaction in 1998.  Legler began his US professional career with the Omaha Racers of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA).  Coincidence?  Obviously, yes, but intriguing nevertheless.

To return to 1999 and 1998, Jordan’s impending retirement after the NBA Finals prompted philosophizing on the game and a reappraisal of changes in the NBA over the past 20 years for the better.  (In contrast, the defeat of the Miami Heat, the rancid aftertaste of Lebron’s 2010 summer signing spectacle, and angry rumblings about player egos and money filtered through the mainstream basketball media in force beginning in June 2010.)  1998 was a wrap-up year and, rightly or wrongly, will be remembered as such. 1999 bears the brunt of the blame for the lockout.

Bosh, Wade, and James with smoke machines

Tainting 2011's historical memory

However, to reach the core of the matter, the 1998-9 period requires some analysis from a macroeconomic perspective.  Years before Latrell Sprewell’s infamous comments about not being able to feed his family on $9 – $10 million per annum, although not long after his choking incident, the rosier economic forecast for the United States enabled fans to adopt a far more forgiving attitude towards the NBA.  Roughly 1/3 of NBA franchises moved into new stadiums from the mid-1990s – 2000.  Shifting a stadium requires major community support and goodwill, capital from various government agencies (i.e., the extortion fee paid to keep a team in a given location), and business savvy to deal with minor issues (think sign costs).  In short, an undertaking for healthy economic times.  In stark contrast to the later go-go Clinton years, the current economic forecast paints a gloomy picture for the country.  Then again, stadiums have shifted towards more box seating to attract corporate clients and a higher-end clientele, groups that have not necessarily suffered over the last three years.

Overall, the dominant narrative of 1999 is of a country that was dealing with certain social and political issues—Kosovo was just around the corner, Microsoft was the dominant player in the computing industry—but with a happier outlook and a feeling, in NBA-land, that a new beginning was, well, beginning.  On the flip side, here in 2011, the economic downturn, the uncertainty surrounding the place of the US in the world, and longing for the restoration of the fabled, historically inaccurate, and yet beloved myth of goodness in sports leads to bitterness and resentment at the intransigence of the owners and the players.  The greed that runs through the negotiations is spoiling the goodwill and momentum that the NBA worked for roughly a dozen years to build—not coincidentally, the amount of time that passed since the last lockout.  This article may be humorous and may have started off as a facetious historical commentary, but Yours Truly has realized that the NBA is tottering on dangerous ground here because the situation is drastically different than in 1999.  Prince was wrong when it comes to the NBA.  There was no dancing then and there certainly will be none now if a stoppage occurs.  I say, I want the CBA back.  And I don’t mean the one that Isaiah murdered.

†See, for example, Nate Silver’s blog entry near the start of the lockout:  http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/calling-foul-on-n-b-a-s-claims-of-financial-distress/

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