Sam Amick
Thursday November 24th, 2011

It is a death march of the highest order in the sports world, the NBA lockout that is nearing the end of its fifth merciless month.

And so it was that the powerful imagery made perfect sense, especially coming from a man with so much to lose should there be no stay of execution for the 2011-12 season. Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, whose city officials discussed suing the league as a way to recoup lost revenues last month and made us wonder if the insatiable owners might be called out on civic carpets across the country, clearly saw these as the possible end of the NBA's days.

"If you recall when Sean Penn in 'Dead Man Walking' was on his way to the death chamber, and I believe it was sister Helen asking him if he had anything to say," Wharton said. "And he looked at her and said, 'Don't judge a man on the worst day of his life.' Well I don't think we can judge the players or the league on this particular phase of their existence. I'm looking at it in its totality."

Judgment will come soon enough, though, and we'll find out in the coming days if the players and owners who resumed talks this week are willing to leave the worst behind them and save themselves in time for a possible Christmas start date. Nine days after the players disclaimed interest in their union and began the process of filing antitrust lawsuits against the league that threatened the entire season, sources confirmed a New York Times report that the NBA is making a push for a 66-game schedule that would start on the holiday.

According to, the talks that began on Monday and will resume on Friday involved lawyers from both sides, along with a number of familiar faces, including NBA commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, National Basketball Players' Association executive director Billy Hunter and NBPA lawyer Ron Klempner. Also joining the talks, according to, is former union lawyer Jim Quinn, who helped broker the 1998-99 deal and is seen is a "facilitator" this time around. A source confirmed a Yahoo! report that union president Derek Fisher has not been involved, and it remained unclear as of late Wednesday night whether he would join the Friday discussions in New York. While a settlement could be reached on the legal front, a collective bargaining agreement could not be ratified until the union reorganized.

In many ways, Wharton is just as helpless as all the other hoops hostages here. He sees the collateral damage done by the lockout as much as anyone, from the empty arenas that lead to lost revenues, to the nearby businesses that are taking the involuntary bath, to the employees who not only take a serious hit in pay but risk losing health benefits the longer it continues.

It's made worse by the fact that so many communities being hurt are the same ones that helped build the league's arenas, with owners continuing to push for more concessions despite the fact that the latest players proposal included a 50-50 split of basketball-related income that would conceivably account for their $300 million in reported losses last season. According to a recent report from Marquette School of Law, the 29 teams accounted for (New Jersey was not) play in buildings in which an average of 50 percent of the financing is from the public.

Twelve teams play in buildings in which at least 82 percent of the financing was public, with Memphis' FedEx Forum among them (83 percent). Some of the owners who are widely known to be hardliners just so happen to play in venues that were built largely with public money, from Charlotte's Michael Jordan (Time Warner Cable Arena, 100 percent) to Portland's Paul Allen (Rose Garden, 82 percent) to labor relations committee chairman and San Antonio owner Peter Holt (AT&T Center, 84 percent).

And as owners and players continue to fight over a $4 billion pie rather than feel thankful for the opportunity to even sit at this table, Wharton -- who was one of 14 mayors who signed a letter to the NBA and players urging them to end the lockout -- watches from a distance and wishes both sides would see the bigger picture that's in play.

"Maybe I could ask the court to allow me to come in as a friend of the court, and sit down and say, 'Look, folks, let's work this out,'" Wharton said. "My background is as a trial lawyer and I handled a lot of divorce cases. And many times, when it looked like we weren't going to be able to get a knockdown, drag-out divorce situation resolved, I would take out a picture of one of the children and I would say, 'Listen, she's going to be graduating next year. Do you want to sit on separate sides of the room? ... Think about the children.'"

Wharton went to great lengths to acknowledge the Grizzlies' many charitable ventures that continue even during a lockout, and made it clear that a lawsuit is no longer being considered now. The renewed patience in his province has everything to do with the $36 million in funds that were found recently, thereby allowing Wharton and his colleagues to avoid raising taxes to account for the losses. But if the two sides fail to reach a resolution over the weekend, the time for political correctness will have passed.

The television network partners at ABC, TNT and ESPN will surely be fuming at the prospect of no games on Christmas Day and beyond. Players will scramble to sign overseas while having to admit that their bold move backfired. Owners will continue to see the lasting impact of their decisions on both the game at large and their bottom line. City leaders like Wharton will begin to run out of patience when their people are the ones being punished.

"We wish the [lockout] had not occurred," Wharton said. "We wish it would end immediately. It is damaging our citizens, our businesses, even right now. It's not a matter of whether our city can withstand the losses or not, but you have to look at it in the entire context."

This death march needs to stop now. Let sanity, and the season, survive.

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