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What “The Cap” teaches us about progress and the NBA’s new position

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Thanks to Joshua Mendelsohn’s new book The Cap, we now have a clearer picture of how exactly the financial framework of the modern NBA was built — and what that means today. It’s worth a read for historians and fans alike.

The NBA’s salary cap has been in the news lately because of the league’s unexpected and two-fold drop in revenue during the 2019-20 season. The first hit came after former Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s pro-Hong Kong tweet which cost the league access to the lucrative Chinese television market for most of the season. China eventually got back into it with a broadcast of Game 5 of the NBA Finals — but that was after the league had reportedly lost upwards of $300 million dollars.

The second more obvious blow came thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been mismanaged in America to a terrifying degree. (The President of the United States, despite having apparently caught and recovered from the virus, is still fine with his administration’s response, which boils down to: good luck!) As part of a more fulsome public health plan, the NBA suspended its season on March 11, returning at the end of July in Orlando with a short 8-game regular season and the normal suite of playoff rounds. Of course, these games were normal insofar as they featured two NBA teams playing against each other. There were no fans in the so-called Disney World Bubble. And for the league, no fans means no money — from tickets, merchandise, concessions, and more.

As a result, we still don’t yet know what the NBA’s salary cap and luxury tax line will be set at for the 2020-21 season, a year that may begin as soon as December 22 (if reports are to be believed). What we do know, however, is that in some corners of the sports media world it’s still possible to find a way to blame the players for this shrink in revenue and decline in overall financial health of the NBA. Thanks to pronounced Black Lives Matter messaging, and even a wildcat strike in the Bubble that lasted approximately 24 hours, some commentators assume the league’s fortunes are down because of politics. In the case with China, this is in effect true; in every other case, it is almost ludicrously false.

But this particular story, the one that has the league office, team owners, or the media blaming the players for the financial problems of the NBA, is not new. In fact, at every key juncture in the league’s history, there has been a meeting of politics and finance, a negotiation of players’ rights versus team profits, and a fight over leverage and control. The NBA is in a much different world now than it was decades ago, but it’s not nothing to note the similiarities in this rhetoric — and to see who has the power and how it gets used. As we rush towards the 2020-21 season, it’s also apparent the NBA is heading towards some sort of pivot point again. Though what that could mean remains as yet unclear.

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If we’re trying to mark down the sign post years of NBA history, 1964 is a good place to start. There’s also 1976, which has a significant league-altering moment to it too. And then there’s 1983, which marked a change in the era for professional basketball and the North American sports scene as a whole. These years and more are all documented in the new book by Joshua Mendelsohn, The Cap: How Larry Fleisher and David Stern Built the Modern NBA, published earlier this October.

Mendelsohn’s book is built around the 1982-83 negotiations between the league’s owners and its players association (the NBPA) in the lead-up to their historic collective bargaining agreement that season. That’s the contract which officially tied what the players could earn directly to the league’s revenue while introducing spending minimums and maximums. In effect, the agreement created the first salary cap in professional sports — a ceiling antithetical to free market labour principles — while nevertheless raising the floor on the NBA’s overall ability to compete — within itself and against other sports. We don’t see an explosion in player’s salaries and a $4 billion dollar international basketball operation in 2020 if not for the work of 1983, carried out by those titular figures, Fleischer and Stern, and many other recognizable names.

To set the stage for that 1983 showdown, it’s necessary to go back 20 years (and then some) to explain how the NBA arrived at that inflection point. Mendelsohn’s book does just that, exploring how the first informal players association came together. To begin with, this initial union mostly amounted to star guard Bob Cousy listening to grievances and leveraging his star power to try and ameliorate them. Obviously, this was not a sustainable system and it wasn’t long before Fleischer — at the behest of another Celtic, Tommy Heinsohn — came aboard and began formalizing and uniting what had been a scattered group into a singular voice.

As a heavily annotated book (with almost 40 pages of footnotes), Mendelsohn relies on those distinctive voices to tell his story. Fleisher takes a central role as the players’ spokesman (and agent to some), but we also learn about Stern as his power and influence grow, the righteous strength of Oscar Robertson, the pragmatic pessimism of former commissioner Larry O’Brien, and the varying tenor of the league’s owners. This group includes well-known names like Jerry Buss, Ted Stepien (who at one point wanted to move the Cavaliers to Toronto), and San Antonio’s Angelo Drossos, one of the few survivors from the NBA-ABA merger. That latter figure is one of the villains of the book, his hardline stance undermining much of what the league and the NBPA were trying to achieve at the time. In this though, Mendelsohn is careful to acknowledge when the seemingly “good” owners also broke rank one way or the other (and when players — particularly Wilt Chamberlain in ‘64 and Julius Erving in ‘83 — suggested they might shatter the players’ solidarity). Given his background as a pro-labour negotiator, it’s clear Mendelsohn’s sympathies lie with the players overall. And his book is stronger for it.

This pro-labour sentiment is established from the jump. As Mendelsohn recounts, in 1964 the league’s best players gathered to participate in the first ever televised All-Star Game. Prior to tip-off though, they sat in the Boston Garden locker room and told the owners they wouldn’t take the floor unless their union was officially recognized and their demands for a pension plan were eventually met — the players knew their leverage would never be greater. This star group included Chamberlain (who voted against the strike), Robertson, and Heinsohn, along with current Raptors advisor Wayne Embry, future Toronto coach Lenny Wilkens, and others. It was the first significant push back from the players after a decade of getting the brush-off from the owners. It also laid the groundwork for much of the slow collective bargaining progress that followed. In 1976, the league morphed again, taking on four new teams from the ABA, a merger delayed for years by serious anti-trust concerns at the time. The NBPA saw the lack of competition between leagues as a means for the owners to further depress and control player salaries and movement. They weren’t wrong, which is how Fleischer and Robertson’s 1970 case against the league gained traction, eventually opening the concept of free agency. In these (and other) cases, the players fought for what they were due, believing the NBA was set to grow despite the owners’ insistence of looming and everpresent disaster.

Mendelsohn does a yeoman’s job summarizing this chronology and explaining the nuances of each dispute. The Cap’s foundation is a sometimes complicated legal framework, yet the writing makes its shape all the more simple to grasp. (The book even documents parts of the successful labour movement in Major League Baseball, and the less useful attempts in the NFL.) While Mendelsohn’s storytelling flair is tempered by the setting — boardroom meetings can only be so dramatic and varied — we do get a sense of the characters involved and the highlights in each battle between the players and owners. As his book then scopes down to 1983 and a potential April 2 strike date, Mendelsohn is sure to make the specifics of that particular labour negotiation clear. It could all be a dry affair, yet thanks to the lively people involved and Mendelsohn’s organized thinking on the subject, we learn not only what happened, but also how this advanced collective bargaining agreement came to be. If you’ve ever wondered what negotiations on this level actually look like — especially when held behind closed doors — The Cap is a revelation.

Beyond its collection of historic statements and meeting minutes, however, Mendelsohn’s The Cap can’t help but invoke the mood of the present day. In fact, when Oscar Robertson warns against ever trusting anything the owners have to say, when then-NBPA president Bob Lanier calls some of those same magnates “Neanderthals,” when Larry Fleischer says the financial problems of the league come down to getting “better owners, with more money, who market better,” it’s possible to hear the echoes of those same arguments in 1998 or again in 2011 or even now, in a time of relative (and lucrative) peace — notwithstanding all that’s happening in the wider world outside of the NBA. Or maybe because of it.

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The general upward trajectory of the NBA’s growth will be stunted in some way for the upcoming season — and likely beyond. Since we don’t yet know what the salary cap numbers will look like for 2020-21, this off-season’s free agency period and the supposed bonanza waiting in 2021-22 remain an open question. And that’s before we even discuss when or how the actual games will be played. Despite the league’s best efforts, the wider world did indeed push its way into the insulated realm of the NBA. The league’s Bubble got them to the end of 2020 and crowned a new champion. But the present reality — financial and otherwise — was still waiting for players and owners alike at the end.

Still, there is peace in professional basketball. The league’s current CBA is set to run to the end of 2023-24, most everyone has been making lots of money (save for perhaps some Neaderthal owners), and player freedom has never been greater. In this long view, it’s clear the players’ labour movement of the 60s, 70s, and 80s achieved what it set out to do. A parallel exists, however, between the actions of those past players and the latest iteration of the NBPA. The players’ wildcat strike in the Bubble, after it became apparent that mere talk would do little to dissuade police and the state from killing Black people, was something new — but it was also part of that same political continuum, that same lineage of struggle. This time their fight, however brief, wasn’t for a more equitable NBA; it was instead a battle for a more equitable world.

That the players are now, in some corners, being blamed for the resultant drop in TV ratings and league revenue is comical — and in no way surprising. As The Cap explains, this has been part of the tradition of the NBA going back decades, even as the league continued to grow unbated into the powerhouse it is today. (It’s not hard to draw straight line from discussions over whether the league was too Black, right on up to concerns that the players are getting too outspoken.) And as before, the players will have to bear the brunt of those financial punishments through a dip in their potential earnings. Ironically, the owners won’t even have to demand any concessions this time; that dip has been codified into the current CBA. Ultimately, that’s the basketball world created by Larry Fleischer and David Stern’s salary cap. It works when things are going well, but there are drawbacks in times of unforeseen trouble.

Setting financial concerns aside, the players also saw what kind of hold they have on our collective imagination and attention. Given how quickly their wildcat strike for social justice ended (with LeBron James reportedly in the Wilt and Dr. J role this time around) and how quickly the league’s power structure now wants us all to move on, they should probably expect an even more vindictive response — from owners, fans, and the media — if there comes a next time to push back. This is tradition too, one that seeks to vilify labour for the problems created by those higher up the chain — be they angering Chinese nationalists (however rightly), fostering a system of racist police violence, or mismanaging a pandemic. These are all massive issues, yet it’s worth remembering that the players’ power and leverage does exist.

Of course, it’s perhaps unfair to lump the NBA’s players into any of this. Geopolitical conflicts, systemic racism, and public health crises are not really their problems to solve. As we’ve learned in 2020, however, there is no escape from that wider world or its attendant failures. There can only be solidarity in response, an acknowledgement that we all have to fight together with the players and each other — through voting, sure, but also through direct action — for something greater than our individual selves. Even if, maybe especially if, that ideal may seem impossible in the moment. Or as Bob Lanier said in 1983 of his part in a long struggle: “I’m getting along in years, and I may not reap the benefits of this agreement, but we have worked on behalf of the younger brothers and those who are still to come...

“We won because the guys stuck together.”