SAN ANTONIO It is not enough any more to call him Easy Dave. Even the Dave in question agrees.
Easy Dave is what David Stern called himself back in the summer of 1995. He was, at the time, still the commissioner of a league that hadn't lost a single game to a work stoppage. The moniker was meant to reflect more than a bit facetiously, of course how easy it was to make deals with him.
On the first day of summer some 10 years later, Stern didn't fight it when someone suggested a nickname change was in order.
Easiest Dave Ever?
"That's OK," Stern said Tuesday, roughly a half-hour after the press conference in which he joined union chief Billy Hunter to announce a lockout has been averted with a new six-year labor agreement.
"It paid to be easier this time, given what was at stake."
This time naturally makes you think of last time, when Stern was anything but easy. In 1998, three years after the Easy Dave comment, he locked his players out into 1999, threatening to go as far as the NHL just went to change its financial landscape and ultimately forcing a first-ever shortening of the NBA season from 82 games to 50.
Those memories, Stern admitted, prompted him to be easier than ever in these negotiations, resulting in a flurry of concessions at the finish line to avoid protracted lockout No. 2.
Yet after hearing everything the league conceded, after months of hard-lining behind closed doors, you have to wonder how long it'll be before owners start missing the system presently in place.
Stern called it "a 50-50 deal" at the dais, but it sure doesn't look that way at first glance. These things are always easier to judge down the line, after the loopholes no can see today are exposed, but what we know for now is that many of the initiatives that were important to league owners based on everything we've been told all season didn't come close to passing.
Guaranteed contract lengths were reduced by only one season, compared with the three-year reduction teams were seeking. Year-to-year raises were only reduced marginally, too. Those are indeed concessions from the players' end, but Stern and his negotiators also agreed to raise the salary cap by a healthy $5-to-$7 million.
Add that cap increase to a series of mathematical tweaks explained at length by my colleague Chad Ford and you're bound to see teams spending more liberally this off-season and in subsequent off-seasons. Especially because the league also lessened the impact of the luxury tax, after longstanding whispers the new tax would be more stringent.
Once Stern abandoned the league's wish to apply a so-called super tax, Hunter couldn't wait to shake hands, even if that meant the union agreeing that players will be tested randomly for a wide menu of drugs four times between Oct. 1 and June 30.
"The better trade-off was to avoid the lockout," said Stern, clearly believing the global growth he forecasts can offset any additional risk teams absorbed in the deal-making.
Stern likewise wound up sacrificing some of his absolute power in doling out punishments for on-court misconduct. Suspensions longer than 12 games, as meted out to Ron Artest, Jermaine O'Neal and Stephen Jackson in November after The Malice of Auburn Hills, can be challenged to a neutral arbitrator starting next season.
The most flexing seen Tuesday from Stern was directed at his own people, when he hinted at a "forthcoming" directive that will ban all NBA personnel from scouting teen-agers in high school gyms, as part of the new 19-year-old age limit.
"I think it's fair to say that we understood what we had to give up in order to make a deal without really damaging the sport," Stern said. "That was not the case in '98, when we felt we had to take whatever steps were necessary to make several fundamental changes in our system."
As for the ominous tough talk Hunter and Stern were trading last week?
Both men agreed that the public posturing scared their own constituencies more than the guys on the opposite side of the bargaining table.
"I guess the two of us needed to ratchet up the rhetoric (until) we decided it was time to back away from the abyss and decide if we could really do a deal," Hunter said.
Hunter, as a result, will be presenting a rather tasty deal to his rank and file when he goes over all the particulars Tuesday at a players association meeting in Las Vegas. As Hunter happily noted, the league's guarantee that the players will receive no less than 57 percent of all revenue annually is "a first in the history of professional sports."
But let's thank both chieftains. As recently as last week, you struggled to find anyone in either group who saw hope for avoiding a work stoppage. Even though it's doubtful that we would have ever reached the point of losing games, who knows? As Stern said during his first Finals press conference, "Once there's a lockout, anything can happen."
An oft-trying season is ending in fine fashion. The last game of the season at The Palace, scene of the horrific melee with Indiana, was one of the best NBA Finals games of the modern era.
The sudden turn in labor talks, meanwhile, allows us to focus on the finish of the Finals and, in Stern's words, "avoid the Apocalypse" he and Hunter were anticipating.
Then we can safely proceed to the silly season of free agency on July 1, a treasured time of the year for the sport's die-hards, without interruption.
"I think it's a chance for us to get up front, to gain some goodwill having reached this agreement, particularly when you look at what's happening in other aspects of professional sports," Hunter said. "And I'm hoping we benefit from that."
With a nudge from Easiest Dave, that shouldn't be too tough.