When labor talks restart, who can be NBA’s Robert Kraft?

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Right now, the lawyers are the guys putting on the show. The players have their big-gun attorney David Boies filing an antitrust lawsuit. Within a couple days David Stern (a lawyer) and his legal team will respond with their own legal maneuvers trying to crush the rebel alliance, and that will garner headlines.

But the way this will end is with settlement talks.

The argument technically shifts from “how do we build a collective bargaining agreement?” to “what collective bargaining agreement can we reach so we can throw the lawsuit out?” but it is essentially the same — two sides talking across a table. When the owners and players agree on a CBA the lockout and all this will end.

They did that in the NFL when Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Colts center Jeff Saturday threw the lawyers out of the room and agreed to keep negotiating, regardless of what advice they got from said lawyers. From ProFootballTalk, here is what Saturday said:

“The big shift came when owners and players began to negotiate by ourselves,” Saturday told NFL Network. “You really began to see men’s personalities and what they believe in. Robert Kraft was instrumental in getting this deal done. … Each and every one of us understood what he was going through.”

Have the NBA negotiations ever been humanized like that?

The NFL sides met for 16 straight days and hammered out a deal. The NFL season started on time.

For all the legal wrangling (and the differences in the talks), that is how the NBA lockout will end. Lawyers will want to use litigation to solve problems the same way surgeons will want to cut even when it is not the best strategy. Somebody needs to take charge, be rational, put Stern and the hardliners to the side, and just make this happen.

The problem is, who can be the NBA’s Robert Kraft?

Mark Cuban? He has the personality, but would the hardliners really accept the deal from one of the biggest spending owners (The only team that has spent more in the last decade on salary is the Knicks. Thanks, Isiah!). Small-market owners see him as part of the problem, not the solution.

Michael Jordan? He’s a hardliner that the players don’t trust right now so he will not work. It’s not the personality of Jerry Buss (or even Jeanie) to leap into this kind of fray, plus they again are big spenders. James Dolan? Do you really want him to craft a complex business deal about basketball? Same with Micky Arison. He can pick the place I go to dinner anytime but not sure he gets to be the man here.

Could a hardliner from the owners become the voice of reason and pull it off — Ted Leonsis (Washington), Herb Kohl (Milwaukee), or even, gulp, Dan Gilbert? (Insert your own “CBA written in Comic Sans” joke here, I’m not doing it for you.) Maybe a moderate such as Peter Holt (San Antonio) could, although he has been in front the whole time and nothing.

It’s the same on the players’ side — who could be their Jeff Saturday? Derek Fisher, Chauncey Billups, maybe even Etan Thomas?

Both sides are not going to like the ultimate deal struck, that’s how negotiations work. But if the NBA season is to be saved in some form, the sides need to start viewing each other as people not enemies to vanquish. Somebody is going to have to take charge, be rational and not take no for an answer.

Sadly, I just don’t see who can do it.