In delivering his stunning verdict, in declaring Chris Paul's trade to the Los Angeles Lakers dead before arrival, David Stern never looked so small or weak. He made a parody of parity, and the joke ended up being on him.
So let's get this straight: New Orleans Hornets general manager Dell Demps does himself and his profession proud, making a smart deal for a superstar who wants out, and the commissioner of the NBA kills it because some owners prefer this superstar in Sacramento, or Minnesota, or Cleveland, or wherever?
So this means Paul is allowed to be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers, but not the Los Angeles Lakers? The Cleveland Cavs, but not the Boston Celtics? The New Jersey Nets, but not the New York Knicks?
What an outrageous abuse of power. What an ungodly mess Stern and the owners have made.
They imposed their latest lockout with the intent of breaking the players' will, of reminding them who was boss. If it was about money, and the players surrendered lots and lots of money, it was about power, too.
LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were the NBA's power brokers the past two years, and their employers wanted to regain control of the league before Paul and Dwight Howard and Deron Williams could manipulate it the way James and Anthony did.
The small markets wanted protection from the raiding big markets. Never mind that San Antonio had won four championships -- or two more than the city slicker Knicks had won in their storied history -- through diligent scouting, intelligent drafting and good coaching. The lockout hawks wanted to be sure Dan Gilbert didn't die an Eastern Conference death in vain.
When they bled $3 billion in wage concessions out of the players, traded an 82-game season for a 66-game season, and sacrificed some of the sport's steamrolling momentum from 2010-11 to create something of a level playing field, the owners assumed that they were back in charge, that no team or fan base would ever again be LeBron'd or Melo'd into oblivion.
And then in the immediate wake of the lockout, as the jowly billionaires raised champagne glasses to their good fortune and fate, Paul reminded everyone about a champagne toast of his own, the one he made at Anthony's wedding. Reports surfaced that he wanted to be a Knick just as much as he wanted to be a Knick before the labor war was (sort of) lost.
Howard sounded halfway out of Orlando, and Williams announced he wouldn't be signing an extension with the Nets. Suddenly the owners realized they had a problem, a big one. Those $3 billion in collectively bargained savings over 10 years didn't buy them what they cherished most -- the right to tell their most prominent employees where they could work.
As it turned out, the players had lost some money and some security, but not their ability to pick a team and a market that fit their objectives. Paul couldn't weave his way to Broadway after the Knicks paid their necessary ransom for Anthony, so he settled for a hell of a Plan B -- Hollywood, by Kobe Bryant's side.
With the Houston Rockets acting as middlemen, Demps landed for his league-owned franchise Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, and a 2012 first-round pick the Rockets had obtained from the Knicks, of all teams, for Tracy McGrady, of all people. (Former Knicks president Donnie Walsh long ago said of dealing that pick, "I'll second-guess myself forever on that.") Pau Gasol ended up in Houston.
Demps had enhanced his team's future while forcing the Lakers to part with two significant pieces to their contending puzzle. It was a fair deal, a good deal for New Orleans, and not necessarily one that guaranteed Kobe Bryant would match Michael Jordan with Title No. 6 in June.
And then Stern dunked it hard, shattering the backboard in the process. In the alleged best interests of the league, in the supposed name of competitive balance, the commissioner decided the big-market Lakers would be too strong too soon after the lockout.
Stern decided it would be too embarrassing for a franchise the league owned to be hanging another banner above the mighty Lakers, and called the whole thing off. His ruling did what the lockout failed to do -- ordered Paul to get back to work in New Orleans.
"If Chris Paul doesn't get traded," said one source close to the Paul talks, "and if he ends up losing $30 million or $40 million in free agency because he wants to sign with someone else, I think he might have the biggest lawsuit the league has ever seen."
This is a terrible day for the NBA. If it's not Tim Donaghy, or Latrell Sprewell attacking P.J. Carlesimo, or the Malice in the Palace, it's close enough.
Where does Stern draw the line from here? Are the Lakers even allowed to offer Gasol and Odom, or Andrew Bynum, for Dwight Howard? If New Orleans wants to deal Paul for a Celtics package built around Rajon Rondo and draft picks, is Demps allowed to consider that?
What if the Knicks finish off the Tyson Chandler deal and, for some reason, offer New Orleans a fresh package including Stoudemire or Anthony? Can the Hornets consider that bid because the Knicks haven't won it all since 1973?
By summoning the spirit of Blockin' Bowie Kuhn, Stern has turned his entire sport upside down. This could go down as the worst call a commissioner has made since Pete Rozelle chose to play football after the murder of JFK.
"WoW," Chris Paul tweeted Thursday night.
It was the nicest thing said about the nullified trade. The joke is on David Stern now, only those who care about pro basketball are too shocked to laugh.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.