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NBA's agreement sheds light on larger issue: today's leaders

They shake hands, and everything changes.

The lockout ends and the feelings for the NBA change from anger and frustration to another more nuanced set of impressions. The agreement isn't going to provoke outright joy, because there is too much resentment that can't simply be wished away, and a compacted 66-game season played on short notice is nothing of beauty either.

It instead brings forth feelings of relief, because the self-destructive cancellation of the season was avoided, and encouragement, for having proved that the owners and players weren't the self-absorbed losers they were making themselves out to be.

It is encouraging because this agreement shows that difficult situations can be resolved. The biggest problem between the owners and players wasn't the split of revenues or the luxury tax or free agency and the mid-level exception. All of those details were symptoms of the real problem, which was the failure of these billionaires and millionaires to work out their disagreements as adults. In the end they realized it was more important for them to work together on behalf of the larger needs of the NBA than it was for each side to have its own way at the other's expense.

Isn't this the biggest problem of the larger world? Look, a sports writer isn't going to dare lecture anyone on the recession, unemployment, foreclosures, education, climate change and all of the other issues facing our country. But the experience of the NBA surely raises a larger question: Isn't the most worrisome and frustrating aspect of all of these larger problems the failure of our leaders to address them and begin to solve them? We all know that the overwhelming majority of our leaders in Washington, like our leaders in the corporate boardrooms, are worried mainly about themselves. They have proved with relentless consistency that they will let bad situations grow worse before they will compromise on behalf of the greater good.

Yet that sense of compromise is what took place in New York in the early morning Saturday when the owners and players shook hands on a tentative agreement. Of course the problems of the little NBA don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But the problems of the NBA were real, and they appeared to be insurmountable until the owners and players recognized the needs of the NBA were bigger than their own needs.

This is leadership. It isn't the kind of leadership you find in war movies or political advertisements, where the self-styled hero glows with a charisma earned at the expense of his victim.

The way it finally worked itself out in the NBA negotiating room is the way it is supposed to work in real life. Leaders on both sides of the table were confronted with concessions they hated to make, but they made them anyway. Some owners and some players are going to be angry about those concessions, and their condemnations may weaken the standing of the leaders who shook hands on the compromise solution.

But that's what leaders do. They sacrifice on behalf of the greater good. If only it were so everywhere.

I can imagine there are many fans who wonder why the NBA had to put itself through more than two years of enervating public trauma, while the NFL was able to resolve its lockout without losing games or popularity. This is because the NBA operates in the real world as we know it today, and the NFL does not. The NBA owners were losing money -- just how much they were losing was disputed by the players -- and the relationship between David Stern's owners and Billy Hunter's players was as polarized as any you will find on Capitol Hill.

The NFL owners were making money, and their lockout was an exercise in making more money. To this day the NFL is run like a modern-day version of "Mad Men," where life is all very simple: It's a man's world where the boss can fire you and the players are employees who are willing to subject themselves to all kinds of physical abuse on behalf of their employer. But it's not going to continue like this forever for the NFL. The most worrisome threat for the NFL is very real: If the nascent research on brain injuries should prove that football is innately dangerous to mental health -- whether or not a player suffers concussions -- then that research may yet have the same damaging impact on the NFL owners as all of that cigarette smoke and alcohol had on the generation of Don Draper (who, in case you don't watch, is the handsome smoking and drinking star of "Mad Men").

This is not to wish ill fortune on anyone, but to show that no one is ultimately immune from having to compromise and do things one doesn't want to do.

I will admit (and not just because it's easy to look up online) that I didn't think the NBA owners and players had it in them to reach agreement. I believed a majority on each side of the table wanted to save the 2011-12 season, but I also believed that process and protocol had got the better of them. They knew what they should do, but they didn't know how to do it -- that's what I thought would be the epitaph on this lost season.

But they turned out to be bigger than the overwhelming circumstances. This is not a perfect deal, and it is surely loaded with all kinds of unintended consequences. For all anyone knows, the efforts to limit the dominance of the richest franchises could wind up giving them more power than ever, should a hardened salary cap inspire the players to chase endorsement income in the absence of a big free-agent payday. There are going to be bad feelings all around, and you may see some players refusing to do any commercial or public service work for their teams as an act of protest for the deal they feel was shoved down their throats.

For objective people, however, it does no good to exclusively blame the players or the team owners. Because each side needs the other. Together they built up the NBA, together they threatened to bring it down, and together they came to an agreement when they finally realized just how much they need each other.

These negotiations could have meant the end for the NBA. What they wound up generating was not the solution to all of their problems. But it is a beginning. In this world, a beginning is something to be celebrated.

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