WASHINGTON -- Jerry West, a man so completely associated with the National Basketball Association (NBA) that his silhouette is the league’s logo, lets out a sigh and slowly shakes his head when discussing the bitter labor strife between owners and players.
Fans should enjoy the LeBron James show in Miami this season because there was likely to be a work stoppage after the current labor agreement expired in June, he said.
"I would be shocked if there wasn’t [a lockout]," the Hall-of-Famer and 14-time All-Star for the Los Angeles Lakers told Reuters. "I would be absolutely shocked."
In a wide-ranging interview, West, now 72, discussed among others the NBA’s escalating ticket prices and James’s decision to leave Cleveland for Miami.
The topic that drew the greatest emotion from West, however, was the league’s conflict with the players over a new collective bargaining agreement.
"They’re going to have a major battle on their hands," West said, recalling a similar dispute in the National Hockey League in 2004 that wiped out an entire season.
"Could it be hockey? Could they miss a whole season? I hope not. I don’t have any sympathy for the owners, they agreed to pay these salaries.
"But an owner has a right to make a profit. The owners need for one time to put their foot down and say: ‘We’re not doing this’ at the threat of losing a season.
"These players that make $20-$25 million a year, if they lose that one year, they’re never going to be repaid that. I don’t want to see the players severely punished. But an owner takes all the risk."
He said NBA Commissioner David Stern, who said the league lost $370 million last year, should consider the National Football League’s model of revenue-sharing, which gave teams "a chance to compete on a level playing field."
West said it was time Stern told the players the NBA needed to be "a growing viable league instead of having the haves and have-nots. Because that’s what they have now.
"He needs to say: ‘Fellas, look we’re going to have an honest talk here. And this honest talk is not going to be fun for you people’," said West.
Lower player salaries would help make the league more affordable, West said, because tickets were "very, very expensive, particularly in the larger markets."
"You often wonder what is the saturation point? Are we getting true fans or are we having corporate fans that are bringing their people? That would be a concern of mine."
West defended the decision by James, the NBA’s reigning MVP, to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Miami Heat.
"LeBron James earned the right to be a free agent. He can go anywhere he wanted. He’s young, he’s single, it’s about lifestyle. In Cleveland it’s cold in the winter."