Kevin Arnovitz recently wrote a great piece on TrueHoop comparing the NBA lockout to the recent contract dispute between AMC and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. Jason Whitlock has never met a sports narrative he couldn’t bend The Wire to fit. Looking at the world of sports through the lens of a TV show is hardly a novel concept, I’ll admit. However, I feel like the spectacular, just-wrapped fourth season of Breaking Bad can tell us a lot about where we are in this, the dreariest stage of the NBA labor negotiations. David Stern axed the first two weeks of the regular season on Monday. Everything we thought we knew about the incremental (albeit minimal) progress the owners and players have made towards a new collective bargaining agreement has been shown to be wrong. Between the revenue lost from the canceled games and the potential for the dispute to be taken to the courts, it sure looks as though this is going to get a lot uglier before any real progress is made.
COMMON-SENSE DISCLAIMER: The rest of this post contains significant spoilers from season four of Breaking Bad. If you haven’t caught up and are planning on doing so, I’d highly recommend that you stop reading.
Part of what makes Breaking Bad the most compelling show on television is the way it plays with its characters’ morality. Walter White is ostensibly the show’s protagonist, and has been from the beginning, but throughout most of season four, he was arguably the seventh-most likable character. Gus Fring is a ruthless, cold-hearted criminal mastermind who will cut an underling’s throat with a box cutter to prove a point, but he’s at times more sympathetic than any of the good guys. Walt’s wife, Skyler, holds his meth manufacturing over him as a form of moral high ground every chance she gets, but she isn’t above dipping into the illicit funds to save her own skin when the IRS starts looking at her former employer/sometimes lover. There are no real good guys in Breaking Bad. Even the characters we’re supposed to be rooting for have done some unspeakable, reprehensible things (Sunday’s season finale ended with the revelation that it was Walt, not Gus, who poisoned an innocent child in the name of self-preservation).
It’s just as hard to justify picking a side in the NBA labor talks, and even harder to justify sticking with it. The owners are the easy villains, but there have been moments during the discussions (fleeting moments, but real ones nonetheless) when they have come off as more reasonable than the players. The union has a strong moral case as both the labor and the product of the NBA, but the only thing smaller than their leverage with the owners is their self-awareness of how small said leverage is. They, of course, have every right to hold out for what they want, and the amount of givebacks they’ve already reportedly agreed to is huge. But when they pick the day that games are put on the chopping block to start mass-tweeting things like “Let Us Play” as a major PR push, it can somewhat insult the intelligence of the fans. Now that we’re actually losing games, most observers (myself included) have reverted back to being pissed off at both the players and the owners for not getting this done. It’s not a good position for us to be in, and unlike Breaking Bad, where we can justify rooting for drug kingpins and desperate, hypocritical people because the writing and acting are that good, the consequences here are real.
David Stern is the obvious Gus Fring: charming, great at handling the media, and utterly ruthless and uncompromising. Every time I see him feed reporters a line about how much money the league is losing (the most egregious of which being his claim Monday night that the owners have made “concession after concession,” which in reality means that they’ve slightly lowered the still-enormous amount of givebacks they’re expecting from the players), I’m reminded of Gus’ DEA interrogation from this season. Walt’s agent brother-in-law, Hank, has been suspicious of Gus’ involvement in a meth distribution ring ever since his fingerprints were discovered at the scene of former cook Gale Boetticher’s murder. When the Los Pollos Hermanos magnate is brought in for questioning, however, he gives the DEA a story about Gale being a former recipient of his chemistry scholarship who came to him recently asking for money, and then it just so happened that Gus read about his death in the newspaper the next week. The story checks out, and all of the DEA agents (except Hank) buy it. Stern, likewise, has much of the mainstream media in the palm of his hand and willing to report his claims of economic irresponsibility on the part of the NBA players as fact. He is unparalleled at the art of spin, always thinks five steps ahead of his enemies, and is capable of rendering powerless not only his adversaries in the media and players’ union but also most of the owners he represents.
The leverage Walt and Jesse (the labor and the product for the Los Pollos Hermanos meth distributorship) have with Gus is the kind that Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter have deluded themselves into thinking they have with Stern and the owners. What Walt has by the end of the fourth season is the fact that Jesse, despite hating his guts, is unable to bring himself to let Gus kill him. Gus needs at least one of them, and they make it clear time and time again that they are a package deal. Sometimes they overplay their hand (Walt’s accidentally letting slip to Hank that the master chef of the meth ring may still be at large was missing only a “How u”), but so long as they recognize each other’s necessity to live, Gus’ organization is powerless. The players won’t have any such luck with Stern, especially now that the threat of lost games has become a reality. The owners, by all indications, have no qualms about waiting out the full season to get the deal they want. The players say they’re willing to go to those lengths too, but no one really believes them. The expectation throughout the league and the media is that once the players miss a few paychecks, they’ll break down and accept the unfavorable deal the owners have on the table. The union has hashtag campaigns and matching “STAND” t-shirts; Walt and Jesse have something deeper. They’ve both sunk to greater moral depths than they ever had before for each other. Even when they don’t particularly like each other, they both know what the other has done for them.
The hubris on both sides of the table in Breaking Bad and in the CBA negotiations have far-reaching consequences beyond affecting those for whom there are hundreds of millions of dollars on the line. In one episode this season, Walt paid a couple of immigrants employed at the laundromat that housed Gus’ superlab to help him clean up after a cooking session. He did this partially because he was pressed for time, but mostly to give the finger to his boss. The result? The two women, who didn’t even speak English and probably had no idea what was being made in the lab, were put on a bus back to Honduras. Similarly, while the NBA and NBPA debate luxury taxes and BRI percentage points, thousands of minimum-wage arena workers are looking for new jobs. A few NBA players have at least tweeted their support for these workers, and Kobe Bryant and Luke Walton even reportedly donated money to laid-off Lakers employees in August. In this Breaking Bad episode, nobody even gave the deported workers a second glance. All of these people, by no fault of their own, are getting screwed. Too much pride and too many millions are at stake.
Lurking in the shadows on the players’ side are the so-called “Super Seven,” a group of influential agents who represent the bulk of the NBA’s star players. In recent weeks, they’ve mainly been pushing the players not to accept a deal with too low a BRI split, but before that, they were reported to be whispering in players’ ears about decertifying the union. This talk seemed fairly disingenuous, because although these agents represent the players and are ultimately required to do their bidding, they obviously have an interest in pushing an agenda that serves their own ends. Enter Saul Goodman, Walt’s and Jesse’s lawyer, as morally complex as anyone on Breaking Bad. He’ll help his clients launder money, put them in touch with hit men, fabricate water-code violations to strong-arm reluctant car-wash owners into selling, you name it. There’s nothing he won’t do for those he represents. But he’s keenly aware of what his actions mean for his own well-being. He’s constantly checking his own office for bugs and wiretaps, and seemed to skip town every other episode this season. At the end of the day, like the agents, he serves his clients. But he’s far from an impartial third party.
I’m not quite sure where the Mexican drug cartel fits in. Their negotiation with Gus over a truce was nothing if not Stern-esque (“¿Es que sí, o es que no?”), but so was the way in which Gus ultimately outsmarted them. He made a concession for show (allowing Jesse to work for the cartel), and brought a rare bottle of tequila to the party as an olive branch, only the tequila was poisoned. It’s exactly the sort of manipulation of expectations and leverage that Stern has perfected in his nearly 25 years as NBA commissioner.
Gus’ ultimate undoing in season four’s finale was his deeply personal hatred for Hector “Tio” Salamanca, the last surviving member of the Mexican cartel and killer of Maximilio, his original Los Pollos Hermanos partner. The game of chicken (no pun intended) between Walt and Gus ended when he and Jesse guessed, rightly, that the depth of this grudge would drive Gus to make himself vulnerable to an attack. There’s less than zero chance of the players winning the labor war against the owners, but what Gus’ demise says about him is oddly evocative of what Stern’s legacy might be if the NBA and NBPA don’t get their act together soon.
His desire to squeeze his players for as much as they’re willing to give up is born out of loyalty to the owners he works for, and that’s entirely his prerogative. But he’s picked the wrong time for the long-term health of the league in which to play hardball. Thanks to a loaded crop of rising stars like Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, and Kevin Durant; several future Hall of Famers vying for one last chance at a title in the twilight of their careers; the most compelling, flawed, and polarizing superteam in decades; and a bigger international presence than the sport has ever had (which, it must be noted, is largely Stern’s doing), the NBA is as good right now as it’s ever been. And Stern may think that this gives him room to work to negotiate a more favorable deal for his owners, but the damage that a second prolonged lockout can potentially do to the league he’s worked for so many years to build may cost more, monetarily and historically, for him than whatever system issues and revenue split are currently holding the two sides back. That’s the crux of Breaking Bad: sometimes, even those with the best of intentions can be driven to take drastic actions that end, to quote a phrase, with enormous consequences.