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NBA risks alienating fans for good with prolonged lockout

Dueling lockouts. Call me when they're over.

My strategy with sports labor stories is pretty simple: ignore, ignore, ignore. Back in the days when I was a baseball beat reporter I spent far too much time speaking with Marvin Miller, Ray Grebey, Donald Fehr, Gene Orza, Ken Moffett, Mark Belanger and anyone else with a sabre to rattle.

I remember the long hot baseball strike of 1981, and the NFL playing games with replacement players in 1987. I remember baseball's charade of replacement teams in spring training in 1995. I remember management and players' reps trying to manipulate the message and all the bad reporting that's done when sportswriters wander into labor issues.

Fans hate sports labor stories and you know what? Same goes for those of us who write about sports. We didn't get into this business to spend time dealing with the National Labor Relations Board.

So here's my take on the NFL and the NBA lockouts: Pay no attention to any of the noise. It means nothing until games are missed.

I'd give you dollars to donuts that the NFL isn't going to miss any games -- not even those corrupt preseason clashes that owners insist on charging full price for admission. The NFL owners and players are going to figure out a way to split their $9 billion. There will be professional football in August and real games in September.

The NBA lockout looks like another story altogether. The hoops freeze started July 1 and truly threatens to result in games not being played.

Who cares?

Not me. Not in the first week of July. Not even in October and November when the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings are supposed to be lurching toward elimination from the playoffs.

Seriously. Why would any normal person care about an NBA lockout in July, August and September? You should be busy going to the beach, traveling to weddings, maybe keeping up with your fantasy baseball team.

It's the dead of summer and I just can't get into a lather about Joakim Noah and the rest of the Bulls being locked out by the NBA.

Truth be told, a lot of us won't notice if they don't start the season on time. The NBA is all about the playoffs. If the Lakers and Heat kickoff their regular season in February or March, play 40 games, then get into the postseason, the league might be better for it.

The NBA regular season is pretty much of a joke. They play from October to April to eliminate 14 of 30 teams. Sixteen teams make the playoffs and only a handful go into the tournament with a legitimate chance to win the championship. I'm certainly not going to miss watching the Houston Rockets and the Minnesota Timberwolves in November and December.

For the league and the players, the dangers are obvious: the NHL taught us that we can do without hockey for a full year. And it never fully recovered. Now the NBA seems prepared to do the same thing.

It's a mistake to teach your customers that they can live without you.

It's easy to believe NBA owners when they say they are losing money. I certainly can't prove they lost $300 million last year, or that 22 of 30 operated with red ink, but it's easy to buy. Players are getting 57 percent of revenues. It's a broken model. And owners know they need to blow it up and start over. Good luck to Billy Hunter and his NBA players' association.

Bulls boss Jerry Reinsdorf (a major management hawk) went thorough this in 1994 with the White Sox. He saw what happened when the World Series was canceled. And he's willing to do it again to make things right for NBA management. Ditto for a lot of NBA owners who also own hockey teams and believe the NHL's lost season allowed them to fix their salary structure.

Brace yourself for months of stories about givebacks, soft salary caps and lockout insurance. Prepare for the inevitable court appeals and the dreaded NLRB. Try to block it out while you enjoy the pennant races, the World Series and Jon Gruden saying "this guy" on Monday Night Football.

Oh, and if you bump into Kobe Bryant or Jerry Buss, tell 'em you've forgotten all about the NBA and you don't have any sympathy for either side. Tell 'em you have other places to spend you entertainment dollars.

Work stoppages in sports are downright offensive and deserve the fallout they inevitably inspire. These are not true labor situations. It's not the spirit of Walter Reuther, Eugene Debs, Norma Rae or Joe Hill.

It's millionaires vs. billionaires. Pro athletes are not true union members. They have work under individual, personal contracts. They rarely observe picket lines by laborers in other industries.

Bye, bye, NBA. Call us when it's over. We might come back to watch. Or we might have moved on to something else.

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