Peter Holt has always had a voice in the NBA labor negotiations as the chairman of the Labor Relations Committee, but it was the tone of that voice on Thursday afternoon, in the noted absence of commissioner David Stern, that had the players confused.
A generally amenable, friendly personality with just enough of a hint of Texas drawl that it pours like warm syrup on a stack of hotcakes, the Spurs owner entered a meeting room to address the union's entire assembly and his eyes were cold and hard. He delivered a message from the owners' side that had nothing to do with compromise and everything to do with lost patience in federal mediator George Cohen's painstakingly slow, meticulous effort to build an agreement from the ground up.
The owners formally proposed a 50-50 split -- with whatever machinations or "bands" they explain, the foundation of the offer was 50-50 so let's just leave it at that -- which was already in the minds of some owners going too far. But it was agreed: to save the oppotunity to play an 82-game season, a 50-50 deal was what would get it done. But the contingency was that it had to be accepted so the sides could finally get some real momentum toward completing a deal in time for that full schedule of games.
So Holt told the players, we don't go any further until you take the 50-50.
Chris Paul, the lone star in the room, was incredulous.
"Is that an ultimatum?" he shot back.
Then Holt's voice lost all its charming warmth.
"Take it," he said. "Or leave it."
How could it come to this? How could an owner who's small market franchise has been the gold standard in the NBA, the exception to the rule that you need to be in a major market to build and maintain a championship-caliber team, suddenly become such a hard-liner? How can the owner whose teams were the unflinching David in the face of the major market Goliaths on the big playoff stages against rich teams such as the Lakers and Knicks, suddenly lament being David?
The answer is simple: Holt sees the slingshot is running out of rocks.
Tim Duncan is 35 years old and Manu Ginobili is 34. Tiago Splitter doesn't have the chops to be the Next One and the Spurs aren't about to fall into the lottery and take a third chance at the luck of the draw as they did when they won the top pick to take Duncan after already having David Robinson.
But, still, selecting Ginobili in the second round and Parker as a late first-rounder were outstanding finds that can't be overlooked. That's how a small market team can compete: with smart drafting and great coaching, which the Spurs have in Gregg Popovich.
But Holt is clearly admitting that, even with one of the most respected front offices and one of the best coaches in the league, reality is catching up to the Spurs. Perhaps the first sign of trouble was the confusing decision to have an average talent such as Richard Jefferson opt-out of the final year of his contract for $15 million salary, which could have cleared the books in one year, and agree to re-sign him for four years, $39 million.
Sure, the Spurs still get it right in the draft, with George Hill and second-rounder DeJuan Blair as the most recent feathers in the cap. But cracks were starting to show, especially as Parker got frustrated with the lack of a contract extension last summer and started whispering about wanting to move to New York and play for the Knicks. He finally did get his money, but now the Spurs are bursting at the seams at $74 million in contracts for the 2011-12 season....if there is one.
And to make it worse, after their last title in 2009, the Spurs have twice been a one-and-done in the postseason, including last spring's collapse against the Memphis Grizzlies. As a result, Holt admitted his franchise is now losing money after years of flourishing.
So much for the model franchise.
"The last two years we've lost money and that had not been true before," Holt said. "So the CBA that we had, which ended June 30, was progressively getting worse with 22 teams losing $450 million and the year before almost the same amount.
"And we in San Antonio was going the same route. We just got there a little later because we were fortunate that Tim Duncan showed up and David Robinson before that. We won some championships so we were able to go so deep in the playoffs it helped cover our losses. But if we had not had that situation, we would have been losing money before, even before these last two years in this last CBA."
And so now that the Camelot days are ending, Holt is very much aligned with those small market owners who are pushing for greater financial parity in the league. Small market owners love the NFL model because it allows for Super Bowl winners to come from Green Bay and New Orleans just as much as from New York and New England.
"The parity seems to be exciting for the NFL," Holt said.
"We think that's important, maybe as importantly for the local fans in the smaller markets," he added. "They need a team that they can believe in."
Especially now when they can no longer believe in good management and smart drafting.