Chris Paul: The Occupier and the Occupied

In the #Occupy USA movement, there is a debate over the very use of the word “occupy.” One side claims that the history of the word—conjuring images of military occupation and stolen land—alienates People of Color at a time when the movement is striving for more diversity. The other side points out that there is a history in radical resistance movements—from Native Americans at Alcatraz to African American students “occupying” lunch counters—of people "occupying" their space and we should claim the word proudly. It all depends on who is doing the occupying; who has control and who is asserting their power.

We are dealing with a similar "occupy" dilemma in the NBA. On one side, you have the New Orleans Hornets, a team “occupied” by the NBA league offices. They are now officially owned by the other 29 NBA owners and will be league property until an actual owner is found. On the other side, you have the Hornets brilliant star point guard Chris Paul, whose contract ends at year's end and is looking to leave small market New Orleans. The Hornets General Manager Dell Demps has been trying to trade Paul so they don’t lose him for nothing in free agency. As Beckley Mason of Hoopspeak said smartly, “That's the thing some owners don't seem to get. Talent like [Paul’s] is the scarcest quality in the NBA. In market terms, that means he has all the power, all the leverage.”

This conflict between Paul's power and league control came to a head yesterday with two pieces of blaring, breaking news. The first was that the Los Angeles Lakers, in a three-team trade with the Hornets and Houston Rockets, had acquired Paul, pairing him with aging great Kobe Bryant. The Hornets would have received Lakers All-Star forward Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. The Rockets would then have received Gasol from New Orleans, in return for guards Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic and forward Luis Scola. It was a true blockbuster that spoke to Chris Paul’s talent and leverage. The Hornets were trying to get what they could without losing Paul for nothing in 2012 and Demps, in my judgment, did quite well. But then Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal by saying it “wasn’t in the best interests of the league.” Then came an email meant for Stern’s eyes only, in protest of the trade sent by Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. It reads in part:


It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul in the apparent trade being discussed. This trade should go to a vote of the 29 owners of the Hornets…..I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen. I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do. When will we just change the name of 25 of the 30 teams to the Washington Generals? [The Generals are the team set up to lose in perpetuity to the Harlem Globetrotters.]

This is now being held as a smoking gun, revealing that the Hornets are actually occupied territory unable to make moves in the best interests of their team. It also reveals evidence of conspiracy on the part of the owners to limit Paul’s movement. It's one thing for the league office to make this decision, invoking “the best interests of the league.” For the owners to stop it out of Laker-hysteria is collusion and it’s illegal.  Let’s take a moment as well to marvel at the idiocy of Gilbert. The time stamp on the letter reveals it was sent AFTER the NBA made their decision to kill the trade. If he had even gone to the league website before hitting "send", there wouldn't be a collective migraine right now at the league offices.

The fallout has since been nuclear. Paul is taking steps to sue. Gasol is said to be “devastated” at the thought of leaving LA. Odom is in “disbelief.”  It has also sparked the kind of Internet rage usually reserved for star quarterbacks who fight dogs. Lakers fans are beyond furious. The Laker-Haters are slurping the schadenfreude.

But the conflict also reveals something profound about the way the issues supposedly resolved in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement are still unsettled. The lockout was never as much about money as it was about power and who would be allowed to exercise it. There were three contenders, contesting for power: big market owners, small market owners, and the players. We now see that the CBA, done in the name of small-markets teams but still with loopholes aplenty for the big markets, didn't settle the question.

Stern, in attempting to assert control, weighing in on behalf of the small-market owners, looks like a tin-pot dictator, restricting player movement in a ham-handed, paternalistic, and possibly illegal manner. Most troubling for the NBA is not the griping of Laker fans but the fact that  many players took to twitter to express their disbelief. The most noteworthy was Pacers All-Star Danny Granger who tweeted, “Due to the sabotaging of the LA/NO trade by david stern, and following in the footsteps of my athlete brethren Metta World Peace and Chad Ochocinco, I'm changing my last name to "Stern's Bi#&h" #effectiveimmediately”

By not resolving the question of power, the CBA also didn’t resolve the critical issue at the heart of lockout: the zeal of small market owners— in the wake of Lebron and Chris Bosh joining the Miami Heat—to restrict, own and distribute the talents of their employees. It's a question at the heart of sports labor conflicts: whether the "talent" on the court is labor, or a product of labor and owned by others. This is why players, always to media outrage, turn at times to the metaphor of slavery and a plantation to explain their predicament. Not because they are comparing themselves to those who suffered under bondage but because owners constantly contest whether they are in fact the masters of their own talents. For players, it's unclear if they are the occupier of their own gifts and hard work or whether they are the occupied. The NBA’s decision to nix the Chris Paul deal shows that they have perfect clarity on the question. They own the talent and by definition can assert the right of occupation. The only certainty is that, CBA or not, this sets the stage for more conflicts to come.

15 Reader Comments | Add a comment

LOL at small markets

I have no sympathy at all for "small market" clubs. The owners of such clubs believe its a brilliant idea to create a monopoly on new franchises to articifally up the value of their own club. By doing this markets like LA, Chicago, Boston, and New York are underserved by sports product making them richer due to limited supply. Sure it takes a while to build a fan base and move allegiances but I find it hard to believe if New York had 4 other NBA teams that the Knicks would still be as valuable of a media entity as they are today.

Then these same small market brilliatnoires don't seem to grasp that the salary cap is their own worse enemy in keeping talent. When the difference is less than 10 percent in the money department why wouldn't players want to leave for large markets or to play with their buddies. I am sure Nike and the rest of the major sponsors would give a bonus bump for playing in a top 5 market or winning which playing with your other superstar buddies is likely to do.

No there problem is they don't grasp that its the lack of revenue sharing. The big markets again are able to extract higher local contracts that price the little minds out.

I know college sports has it problems but this is a place were the players ultimately decide on were they are going to play. Year after year kids from Chicago go play basketball in Lawrence Kansas or Lexington KY. Kids from Miami go play football in Tallahassee and Gainsville Fl over staying in city even before this mess. Top Dallas kids play in Stillwater and Norman Oklahoma more often than SMU and TCU. So its not like its impossible to get kids to go to small market let alone rural areas.

NBA's lack of parity

I don't know all the legal ins and outs, but the NBA needs a hard cap more than any other sport. They have one in hockey, even though it cost a season to get one, and it seems they have a good system going now. Stars in basketball have so much influence over a game that it's just crazy to have 2 or even 3 of them on the same team. Conversely, it would be fascinating to have 1 superstar per team. The winner would probably still be the team with the greatest superstar, but it would be interesting to see who could carry his team to the title.

The cap is the problem

This is why players go to New York, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, LA and Boston. Its the loss of the Larry Bird excemption. Small market teams need to be able to be able to pay significnatly more than the large market teams.

Most people in general if they are going to make the same amount of money are going to chose one of the above cities. Why would anyone think ball players are different.

Shows how pointless a lockout was

This reminds me of the NHL lockout. The owners were complaining that they were overspending on players and that the only way the problem would get fixed is to lockout the players and have a salary cap. But as you pointed out Jim, that wasn't the solution. The NHL owners simply found new ways around the salary cap and simply couldn't help themselves. They still made bad decisions. They still overspent. They still bent and broke their own rules. In short, nothing was solved.

Sounds like the NBA lockout is going this way. The owners will still spend poorly, still make bad decisions and still expect everyone else to bail them out.

On the Chris Paul decision, it's a terrible one. It is definitely collusion and is a dangerous precedent. There is now a rumor that he might be going to the Clippers. How is that better in anyway for the league, competitive balance, or anyone? Furthermore, it is a perfect example of the real problem with small market teams. If a team is just plain bad and will not make a legitimate attempt to improve, why should they be rewarded for that? If the owner is someone who does bad business and alienates everyone, then doesn't that automatically make that market smaller (LA isn't exactly small market)? Artificially deflating big markets and superstars simply to help "small markets" compete won't actually solve the problem. Small markets have to actually compete (Such as the way that Mark Cuban turned around a franchise that was undesirable for practically everyone and made it the place to be). Thus, revenue sharing would help, but there has to be someway to monitor whether or not small market teams are actually using the revenue to be competitive (i.e spending it on players).

Finally, small market fans need to get in better touch with reality. Being from Albuquerque, which is a small market sandwiched between small markets, I can say this. We have lost both a basketball and hockey team. And yes, it wasn't pleasant. However, I would never expect other teams from larger markets to pitch in simply for us to keep our team or keep it competitive. More importantly, I was against supporting private infrastructure to keep our teams going. This is the real battle. Small market owners against the public in small markets for public money. Given that many small markets are economically depressed, I would think it's more important to think about what could make our schools better or help the economy work for the people that live there or alleviate people's very real suffering. Not whether or not our sports team happens to be competitive.


Isn't it ironic how the most hard-line and reactionary owners are always the first to pay the most money, break the rules that they put in place or go against their own argument when it suits them and is to their advantage. It happened in hockey with teams such as the New Jersey Devils (a team with a known reactionary ownership streak) spending big money for a long term deal that either stretched or broke the boundaries of the labor deal that they took such a hard line on. Expect to see this with the supposed "hard-line" NBA owners.

Right on Daniel

Jerry Reinsdorf was the hardliner in the 94 baseball strike. After the srike he goes and signs Albert Belle.

In sports I want as free of a market as there is. No more BS draft. No more tax payer subsibizes unless the tax payers actually vote for it knowing they will most likely not be seeing a dime in return and likely lossing money. No age limit except for 18 or HS dipaloma. No cap that is there to protect the owners from themselves. No articial limits to the number of teams. Copy Europan football. Sure the same teams win year after year but its not like its that different here. The NFL only has the apprence of parity because of the short season, high injury rate and uneven sceduling. Most sports leagues every ones SOS ends up being roughly the same except for American Football. Most sports leagues do not have the injury problem that American Football has.

The whole idea behind the lockout that every team should be gurenteed a profit was nonsense. Does this not go against every belief these a holes hold dear about the free market? But, than its socolism for us in the top and the free market for those on the bottom.

I disagree Daniel

I don't see how you can say there isn't a HUGE difference in terms of parity between, for example, Spain's La Liga and the NFL. In the latter, every team can legitimately think they have a shot at the title if they make the right draft picks, personnel moves, etc.. In Spanish soccer, from what I understand, the majority of the teams are bankrupt and every season is just Barcelona and RM beating the crap out of everybody else and then having their "clasico" twice a year. How can that state of affairs be sustainable over the long term and why on earth would anyone want that as the model for our sports leagues? The way I like to look at it is the following: imagine you're playing a sports video game and you and your friend want to see who's the best. You wouldn't stack all the best players on your team and leave your friend with the scraps. Where's the fun in that? Sure, you win, but what do you prove? Because you know that if your friend has similar skills to you, he'll win easily when he has the superior talent on his side. What makes it fun is to see who can win when teams are evenly matched. Then that's when great coaching and strategy can make the difference and be all that separates two teams.


I meant to say "I disagree Jim"

Possible contraction?

There is actually something involved here that almost nobody is addressing.

Since the league rejected an offer from the Clippers earlier today that was about as sweet a deal as you can get for one player--let alone for one who expects to leave anyway--maybe the league doesn't expect to find a buyer for New Orleans and plans to fold the franchise in due time.

It seems odd, since I don't think I've ever seen a franchise dissolve before, except in leagues that either folded soon thereafter like the USFL, or unsustainable ones like the WNBA.

Who Knows

The whole situation has been bungled at this point. I cannot say whether or not they will fold, but the whole situation seems ridiculous. The fact that this is supposed to help "save" small market franchises also seems ridiculous. All it will probably make any smart basketball person want to do is stay away from doing business with a franchise like New Orleans altogether. And that might include the current GM. Wondering what he is thinking at this point.

It almost seems like this circus is doing nothing but sabotaging the New Orleans franchise. And for what. To show the players that they can control where they can go? That petty reason is the only one I can think of. I hope the Commissioner is happy that he is showing the players who is in control, because he looks like someone who has lost control and doesn't even believe in the people in his league at any level(Why else would he not let a bright young GM like Dell Demps, who did wonders with the Austin Toros of the NBA D-League and the Spurs by extension, do his job?).

The only thing keeping this Commissioner is power is the fact that NBA owners are less competent than he is and like his vindictiveness against seemingly anyone who challenges what he says.

I've said this before. . .

And I think it bears repeating. It seems to me like David Stern knows his time is running out, and he's doing what he can to grab absolute power not just over the NBA, but in all of world basketball.

In fact, I've compared him to the Peter Falk dictator character in a classic Twilight Zone episode in which he was becoming increasingly paranoid, and killing off his most trusted assistants. I'm thinking that's what we're seeing here with Stern. And I certainly hope that I'm wrong.

Occupy my sophomore political science class

Good God this is P.C. looneyness . . .

As if "People of Color" have never engaged in Empire. Who actually uses that word anyway in real conversation? Seriously?


Lawsuit? Collusion? Do you understand law?

"The fallout has since been nuclear. Paul is taking steps to sue." That's fine tabloid fodder, but what exactly would Paul's lawsuit claim? As it stands, Chris Paul has a contract through the end of this season. Until then, as long as he plays for the Hornets, they must pay him. If they refuse to pay him, he can sue for a violation.

If nothing else happens Paul can still sign with whichever team will extend him a contract after the season. If Stern or any team rep attempts to block that, then Paul would have a case of tampering. Any trade involving Paul until season's end may be in his and/or the team's best interest, but his team, the league, and other owners have no obligation to move him to a preferred destination in advance.

"For the owners to stop it out of Laker-hysteria is collusion and it’s illegal." How can it be illegal or collusion? By all reports, the vetoes wer merely the result of consensus among league owners. Since the Hornets are jointly owned and managed by the league, no one owner nor even Stern himself can unilaterally propose nor void a trade. That's established policy, not clandestine agreement.

Voiding a trade may interfere with Paul's long term plans, and from the looks of things, it hurts the Hornets' future value, but it does not violate a covenant. Unwise business decisions do not a crime make.


New Orleans can't support an NBA team and an NFL team. It just can't. For all its cultural significance, it has little to no Fortune 500 presence. It's the 52nd-biggest TV market in the country and the only market out of the Top 35 with two major sports teams. Sorry. The numbers just don't work.

Stern was right

Sorry, but Stern was right to nix that trade. The NBA already has issues with competitve balance, why exacerbate the problem??? Paul will still get paid when his contract expires after this season as another commenter pointed above.

And I kind of like the fact that Lamar Odom is "devasted" after getting traded, ANYTHING that adversely affects his piece of $#i! Kardashian reality show is EXCELLENT in my book.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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