In the #Occupy USA movement, there is a debate over the very use of the word “occupy.” One side claims that the history of the word—conjuring images of military occupation and stolen land—alienates People of Color at a time when the movement is striving for more diversity. The other side points out that there is a history in radical resistance movements—from Native Americans at Alcatraz to African American students “occupying” lunch counters—of people "occupying" their space and we should claim the word proudly. It all depends on who is doing the occupying; who has control and who is asserting their power.
We are dealing with a similar "occupy" dilemma in the NBA. On one side, you have the New Orleans Hornets, a team “occupied” by the NBA league offices. They are now officially owned by the other 29 NBA owners and will be league property until an actual owner is found. On the other side, you have the Hornets brilliant star point guard Chris Paul, whose contract ends at year's end and is looking to leave small market New Orleans. The Hornets General Manager Dell Demps has been trying to trade Paul so they don’t lose him for nothing in free agency. As Beckley Mason of Hoopspeak said smartly, “That's the thing some owners don't seem to get. Talent like [Paul’s] is the scarcest quality in the NBA. In market terms, that means he has all the power, all the leverage.”
This conflict between Paul's power and league control came to a head yesterday with two pieces of blaring, breaking news. The first was that the Los Angeles Lakers, in a three-team trade with the Hornets and Houston Rockets, had acquired Paul, pairing him with aging great Kobe Bryant. The Hornets would have received Lakers All-Star forward Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The Rockets would then have received Gasol from New Orleans, in return for guards Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic and forward Luis Scola. It was a true blockbuster that spoke to Chris Paul’s talent and leverage. The Hornets were trying to get what they could without losing Paul for nothing in 2012 and Demps, in my judgment, did quite well. But then Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal by saying it “wasn’t in the best interests of the league.” Then came an email meant for Stern’s eyes only, in protest of the trade sent by Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It reads in part:
It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed. This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets…..I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen. I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do. When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals? [The Generals are the team set up to lose in perpetuity to the Harlem Globetrotters.]
This is now being held as a smoking gun, revealing that the Hornets are actually occupied territory unable to make moves in the best interests of their team. It also reveals evidence of conspiracy on the part of the owners to limit Paul’s movement. It's one thing for the league office to make this decision, invoking “the best interests of the league.” For the owners to stop it out of Laker-hysteria is collusion and it’s illegal. Let’s take a moment as well to marvel at the idiocy of Gilbert. The time stamp on the letter reveals it was sent AFTER the NBA made their decision to kill the trade. If he had even gone to the league website before hitting "send", there wouldn't be a collective migraine right now at the league offices.
The fallout has since been nuclear. Paul is taking steps to sue. Gasol is said to be “devastated” at the thought of leaving LA. Odom is in “disbelief.” It has also sparked the kind of Internet rage usually reserved for star quarterbacks who fight dogs. Lakers fans are beyond furious. The Laker-Haters are slurping the schadenfreude.
But the conflict also reveals something profound about the way the issues supposedly resolved in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement are still unsettled. The lockout was never as much about money as it was about power and who would be allowed to exercise it. There were three contenders, contesting for power: big market owners, small market owners, and the players. We now see that the CBA, done in the name of small-markets teams but still with loopholes aplenty for the big markets, didn't settle the question.
Stern, in attempting to assert control, weighing in on behalf of the small-market owners, looks like a tin-pot dictator, restricting player movement in a ham-handed, paternalistic, and possibly illegal manner. Most troubling for the NBA is not the griping of Laker fans but the fact that many players took to twitter to express their disbelief. The most noteworthy was Pacers All-Star Danny Granger who tweeted, “Due to the sabotaging of the LA/NO trade by david stern, and following in the footsteps of my athlete brethren Metta World Peace and Chad Ochocinco, I'm changing my last name to "Stern's Bi#&h" #effectiveimmediately”
By not resolving the question of power, the CBA also didn’t resolve the critical issue at the heart of lockout: the zeal of small market owners— in the wake of Lebron and Chris Bosh joining the Miami Heat—to restrict, own and distribute the talents of their employees. It's a question at the heart of sports labor conflicts: whether the "talent" on the court is labor, or a product of labor and owned by others. This is why players, always to media outrage, turn at times to the metaphor of slavery and a plantation to explain their predicament. Not because they are comparing themselves to those who suffered under bondage but because owners constantly contest whether they are in fact the masters of their own talents. For players, it's unclear if they are the occupier of their own gifts and hard work or whether they are the occupied. The NBA’s decision to nix the Chris Paul deal shows that they have perfect clarity on the question. They own the talent and by definition can assert the right of occupation. The only certainty is that, CBA or not, this sets the stage for more conflicts to come.