Clyde Drexler was at the epicentre of the NBA at perhaps the league’s finest hour. These were truly good times, living it up at the top of the mountain. But he also witnessed the players and owners walk arm in arm towards the precipice, threatening all that they had built together.
The game was in its halcyon era, Jordan, Larry and Magic inspiring it to new unforeseen heights. Internationally, the trio – in tandem with Drexler and several other titans – had lodged an imprint as the Dream Team ignited basketball’s surge in growth, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Players were reaping the rewards. New and old franchises were selling for astronomical sums. Yet as the NBA stands on the verge of its first lockout since 1998, Drexler is warning that another work stoppage could threaten all the gains made.
The former Portland and Houston guard recalls the fury that was unleashed from the fans and the media as reality hit home as they realised that – in the battle to introduce a salary cap and a maximum wage – the league might simply shut down.
The players, Drexler recalls, spoke in hushed tones in the locker room as negotiations built, then faltered, as the previous season came to its close. “They knew it would happen,” he said. “They just didn’t know how long it would go on.
“I retired that summer, thank god, otherwise I would have had to endure the lock-out. The 15 years I played, from 1983-1998, we never had a lock-out. That was the first. Hopefully it will be resolved, and the consequences avoided, before Thanksgiving.”
There were some signs during the recent All Star Game in Los Angeles that the two warring sides have stepped up their efforts to reconcile. But nothing to pin hopes on.
The owners plead poverty. The players cry foul. We won’t cave in, they insist. It has been back and forth for months between the NBA’s negotiators and the Players Association. Neither is keen to blink first.
“The player salaries have gotten big but the owners are making a lot of money,” Drexler observes.
“The revenue sharing is working. What they will have to do is find a way to come to a middle ground where both parties are happy and they can move on without any recourse.”
It took 204 days last time to end the stand-off. On the verge of cancelling the entire season, an agreement was reached. Drexler was not for returning. Now aged 48, he recalls the lukewarm reception which the NBA received on its re-opening. It took time to win over hearts and minds once more.
As the league nestles in another glorious époque, both parties are gambling with the public’s affections once more.
“I think it’s very dangerous for the sport in general, for the future of the sport,” the ten-time All-Star declares.
“It depends on the sport being played. Any time there’s a lockout with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it’s bad for the players and bad for the owners and really bad for the fans.
“Hopefully something will be done quickly so we can get on with the business of the NBA.”
It was not only in Barcelona where Drexler emerged as a champion. He claimed a title in London, in 1995, as the Rockets squeezed a victory in the McDonald’s Championship at the now-demolished London Arena.
Named the MVP as Houston defeated Buckler Bologna 126-112 in the final, it is the most meaningful game a NBA team has played in the United Kingdom – at least until this week.
“We didn’t find it easy,” he recounts, “but you have to remember that Hakeem Olajuwon didn’t play in that game (against Perth Wildcats) and so to win, without our best player and our centre, was a challenge. We expected that. We didn’t play well in our next game but we still got it done.”
Following the NBA’s regular season games between the Nets and Raptors, the next scheduled British diary date for the current generation of All-Stars is next year’s Olympics.
Team USA, by virtue of winning the world championship in Turkey last autumn, is the lone team to have already booked its spot.
So who would win – Dream Team I or the likely 2012 crop?
“I may be a little biased but I believe that was the best team ever assembled,” Drexler laughs.
Regardless, the challenge will be rather stiffer than his stellar line-up confronted in 1992.
“I think those guys will be very good but they will be challenged, not only by Spain and Argentina but by other nations as well,” he states.
“Maybe Great Britain, maybe Lithuania, maybe France, maybe someone else.”
Tickets for Raptors v Nets on March 4 and 5 are available at www.the02.co.uk. Both games are live on BBC Radio 5Live Sports Extra.
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