Credit players for saving NBA season

Professional athletes are greedy, selfish, out of touch with the real world -- we hear these things all the time. But the tentative end of the NBA lockout should bring a permanent end to the notion that ballplayers never, ever sacrifice individual gain for the common good.

Go ahead and credit David Stern for pulling the NBA from the brink of an unmitigated disaster, or the owners for making endgame concessions on system issues that allow for a little less restraint of trade.

I'll be busy crediting the athletes for giving their employers $3 billion -- give or take a few hundred million -- in order to sustain the sport's momentum and keep the league running for the next 10 years.

That's THREE BILLION DOLLARS. The players should've put that staggering figure in neon lights at every single turn.

But their message was lost, muted by the earsplitting sound of the league's publicity machine pumping out reminders that in a brutal economic climate these young men were already banking a fortune to play a child's game.

The NBA scored a blowout victory on this front because the fans -- at least the vast majority of those I spoke with -- couldn't get past the notion that ballplayers guaranteed millions upon millions in wages should be willing to absorb a hit, and should go along with the owners' offer of a 50-50 split of basketball-related income.

Truth is, the players deserved better than the 49-51 percent of BRI they'll get in this new collective bargaining agreement, down from 57 percent in the previous one. This isn't tantamount to an auto industry dispute between management and assembly line workers. NBA players don't build cars; they are the cars, the work force and the product.

Once again, the players represent the only reason anyone in any corner of the globe cares about the NBA. And yet Stern and the owners flagrantly fouled them over and over. As much as the game's elders demand good sportsmanship, they showed none here.

Stern and the owners ran up the score. They hung on the rim after their dunks, and they talked more than their share of trash.

Finally, after another negotiating session that spilled into the small hours of the night, the commissioner called off the rout. "The greater good required us to knock ourselves out and come to this tentative understanding," Stern said.

Yeah, the greater good and the possibility the NBA could've lost it all in court.

As it turned out, the players' union should've disbanded months ago to put the man-to-man press on the owners.

Maybe the league would've agreed to the 52.5 percent of BRI the union wanted, maybe not.

In the end, this much is clear: The players gave and gave and gave some more, forcing even the hardest of hard-liners -- the owners privately rooting for a missed season and a hostile takeover of a post-nuclear NBA -- to tentatively agree to a 66-game regular season starting on Christmas Day.

What kind of basketball should fans expect? One scarred veteran of the 50-game monstrosity born of the 1998-99 season maintains they shouldn't get overly excited.

"The overall quality of basketball was very poor during that regular season," said Jeff Van Gundy, who led the Knicks to the Finals in '99. "If you're not going to have proper preparation and you're not going to have a normal preseason, you're going to get some horrible basketball.

"I hate it when we buy all the rhetoric that's given out, that we're doing this for the fans. A compressed schedule is not for the fans. It's for the two entities to try to maximize their money, and that's it."

While Van Gundy is right that the fans and impacted vendors and small business owners were the aggrieved parties -- "The only people I feel badly for were the ones that really needed the money, the people who always get overlooked," he said -- it's also true that the owners maximized their money, and the players did not.

When the NBA needed someone, anyone, to save a sport that last spring looked ready to flower all over again in a Magic, Bird and Jordan way, the owners were nowhere to be found. They amounted to the more selfish party here, and it wasn't even close.

That doesn't make the players heroic, or noble or suddenly desperate for a telethon. But that $3 billion -- give or take -- they just handed back to keep the games going?

That should make the players a little less distant, and a little more likable, the next time you want to shout about their arrogance and greed.

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, 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.