The current state of professional basketball was summed up rather fittingly on the biggest day of anticipation the NBA calendar has to offer.
At 1 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, a studio show airing on NBA TV was supposed to spark the unveiling of the league-wide schedule for the 2011-12 season. Instead, the announcement that typically triggers excitement over another year was pre-empted by WNBA basketball.
For 12 real-time minutes, fans were forced to watch the Indiana Fever and Atlanta Dream wrap up what perhaps is normally a riveting 84-74 final. Somewhere in that window, someone in New York finally gave the green light to release the schedule on NBA.com.
But the delay was the irony of all ironies.
One way or another, the NBA seems to be stuck in an indefinite holding pattern. Tuesday's unintentionally satirical release of the schedule for a season that might never happen only drove home that point.
When the NBA TV show finally started, host Matt Winer began by calling the release “admittedly an optimistic exercise.”
Under normal circumstances, the Oklahoma City Thunder could puff out its chest as one of a handful of the league's television darlings. The NBA and its television partners penciled the Thunder in for 27 nationally televised games. But a box of erasers might soon be needed with the league wrapped up in a labor dispute that has forged a near three-week-long lockout and threatened to cancel some or all of the upcoming season.
Because owners and players are so far apart on an agreement, there are hardly any observers who believe the NBA season will start on time. The possibility of forfeited games not only puts a damper on news like the Thunder's nationally televised season opener at the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 1, but it also creates confusion over how the league might handle the schedule in the event that games are indeed lost.
An NBA spokesman declined comment on the subject Tuesday since the league is still months shy of being faced with that reality.
But it was Sept. 24, 1998 when the league began cancelling portions of the season the last time it was stuck in this stalemate. During that lockout, the NBA cancelled 24 exhibition games and indefinitely postponed training camps. Three weeks later, the league cancelled the first two weeks of the regular season. By Oct. 28, 1998, the first full month of the 1998-99 season was forfeited.
Although negotiations have yet to resume since the work stoppage began July 1, the two sides are expected to reconvene in the coming weeks. How long it takes them to strike a deal will determine what happens with the schedule. For example, if the league has an agreement in place by early- to mid-September, this season could go on as business as usual. But if the dispute drags on into late September and October, training camp, the preseason schedule and the start of the regular season will be in jeopardy.