With the NBA and the players union failing to make significant progress in labor talks this week, Boston Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal addressed the shortcomings in the owners' proposal and how fans likely see it as a millionaires-vs.-billionaires dispute. O'Neal, playing in the player-organized, two-week Impact Basketball Competitive Training Series in Las Vegas, spoke with USA TODAY NBA reporter J. Michael Falgoust:
By Nathaniel S. Butler, NBAE/Getty Images
Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal says of the NBA owners' proposal, "You put in a system where every team profits? There's no business structure in the world like that.
Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal says of the NBA owners' proposal, "You put in a system where every team profits? There's no business structure in the world like that."
Are you upset or surprised by what has taken place the last 24 hours?
We want to make the best decision for ourselves and the business of basketball. A guy like myself, going into his 16th year, who's been in love with basketball since I was 8, you want to see development of the brand. You want to see it grow globally. At the same time, you want it to be fair. I feel bad for the families out there that support our league, that are barely making ends meet but find a way to come to our games. It's a terrible time for any sports league to be negotiating millions and billions of dollars.
So why isn't there a compromise?
We understand there should be some adjustments based off the economic structure of not only our country, but the world. We're willing to do that. To the severity of what the owners are asking, there's no way as a union we can do that.
What's so unrealistic about the owners' proposal?
You put in a system where every team profits? There's no business structure in the world like that. … You can't hold players hostage for decisions that have been made in the past. We hear that a lot from the league, "Guys aren't living up to the contracts." What do you do? Basketball is no different than any other workplace. You get guys that perform. You get guys that overperform. You get guys that go under, whether for injuries or whatever. It's just one of those things.
Aside from the hard salary cap, you believe the lack of revenue sharing among owners is a major stumbling block?
Their debate is that teams are losing money. If you profit-share, the top-market teams, they're going to pack the house, they have the highest ticket sales. I don't understand your concerns if you're telling us and the general public that you're concerned about some of the lower-tier markets that are not profitable. Then just profit-share.
So you think the owners' proposal seeks to eliminate the "middle class" in the NBA?
It's bad timing overall. Every player wants to be playing. If the owners are going to just sit on the deal they're proposing, then there's just no way. Taking out the mid-level (exception to the salary cap) is going to ruin our game. It's going to individualize our game so much. Basketball is based off a system. Everybody is given a role in the game. It's not just everybody running up and down. We have some really good mid-level players in our league, borderline All-Star players. If you're going to say, basically, we're going to roll back salaries and we're going to give two of the top players on the team the top deals and take out the mid-tier and let everybody else fend for the $1 million, $2 million, $3 million (shakes his head). … Doing that is going to make guys go for their own. It really is.
Are owners' claims about bad attendance in some markets legitimate?
Teams that aren't winning aren't going to have the best attendance. … That's where profit-sharing comes into place. Then you don't have all those issues with that. If people running teams don't make bad decisions, we won't be talking about bad deals.
How much different is this lockout from the one in 1998?
As good as (Commissioner) David Stern is, and he's really good, he's done a great job on branding the game. As owners, you got to put your ear to the product. You've got to listen to the product a little bit. I'm not talking individually. I'm talking about a body of players. We couldn't be any stronger than we are now. You look at where we were in '98. I was young; I was only two years in. I went to every meeting and it wasn't like this. Guys are very interested in what's going on. Guys feel very strong about our stance. We want to make a deal. But we can't do the deal that's being proposed right now. It's just not fair.
We're more educated about it. The union did a good job positioning us last season to the point we knew what was going to happen. Guys did a good job positioning themselves economically. You hear all the conversation. You see more text messages, more phone calls, more unity right now. Nobody wants to be on strike. … It took us a long time to recover from the last strike. We had to win the love back. We had to get out in the communities and damn near knock on doors to get them back out there. We're just coming off the best season of all time, and for us to even be talking about stoppage (is crazy).
Whatever deal is reached, you won't be around for most of it. What's your personal stake in this?
I'm probably in the last year of my career. I'm more concerned about the young guys, the future of the NBA players that's going to carry the league. My 5-year-old son loves basketball. I'm more concerned about the development of our brand. I'm always going to be alumnus of the league. You're in a difficult situation, but as a player, you've got to stand strong. We are the product. We just want to be fair. We're not asking for more money.
So the current impasse is a bridge that must be crossed before any real progress can be made?
I spoke to my agent (Monday), so we had an idea of what was going on. Somebody from the union was in the gym early (Tuesday) talking about it. It's just sad that we even look at President Obama fighting to put in a bill for people to get jobs, and there are people out here who are not going to understand this, not understand the NBA is not playing because of millions and billions of dollars. I have family that's barely living, working 9 to 5 and working hard as hell every day. As a fan, not as a player, I want both parties to be fair. Let's just resolve it and let's talk real negotiation. … We're going to stand strong. The NFL (owners) did a great job. They set the tone on how you should negotiate. They were proactive about it. The (NBA) owners only met with us twice in two months. If you're sincere about getting a deal done, twice in two months is a long time doing nothing.