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Stern 'not optimistic,' questions union's good faith

By Steve Aschburner,
Posted Aug 1 2011 7:16PM - Updated Aug 2 2011 6:19AM

NEW YORK -- Nearly three hours of talks in the first negotiating session since June between representatives of the NBA owners and the players' union produced nothing new in proposals for a collective bargaining agreement that could end the league's month-old lockout.

Afterward, a four-minute briefing with NBA commissioner David Stern brought his strongest rebuke yet of what he sees as the players' unwillingness to compromise and end the dispute that could threaten part or all of the 2011-12 season.

Asked if anything in Monday's talks might lead him to be optimistic about progress toward a deal, a glum Stern said: "I don't feel optimistic. I don't feel optimistic about the players' willingness to engage in a serious way."

The follow-up question before Stern exited the midtown Manhattan hotel where the session was held: Is the National Basketball Players Association negotiating in good faith?

"I would say not," the commissioner said.

Given that the players' union already has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the owners of the same thing and that Stern chooses his words wisely, his response surely wasn't accidental. His demeanor and remarks seemed to express his frustration, while also digging in a little more. As deputy commissioner Adam Silver stood quietly at his side, Stern summed up the small-group meeting by saying, "We're at the same place we were 30 days ago."

Anything to give him encouragement? "Nothing," Stern said. "We haven't seen any movement."

Both Stern and NBPA president Derek Fisher acknowledged the recently resolved NFL lockout. Fisher said that people would focus more attention on the NBA's labor conflict now, but Stern had a different take on pro football's outcome.

"From where we sit," he said, "we are looking at a league that was the most profitable in sports, that became more profitable by virtue of concessions from their players, with an average salary of $2 million. Our annual salary is $5 million, we're not profitable and we just can't seem to get over the gap that separates us."

The session Monday was the first since the league imposed the lockout on July 1. It was a smaller session, with Stern, Silver, Minnesota owner Glen Taylor and San Antonio owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the league's labor-relations committee, among the owners' reps. The players were represented by Fisher, NBPA executive director Billy Hunter and vice president Theo Ratliff. Lawyers and staff attended from both sides.

Fisher, while mentioning the lack of progress, sounded more conciliatory when he exited a few minutes before Stern. The Los Angeles Lakers guard stressed a willingness from both sides to schedule additional meetings in August. Another session could be held in the next week or two, with more later in the month.

"We're trying to carve out a week where we can do consecutive days or maybe multiple days," Fisher said. "There was agreement that we have to meet more, talk more, discuss more, so that we can try to figure this thing out."

But Fisher acknowledged that "we're still having a hard time really trying to break through and get to what's becoming clearer and clearer what the bottom line is, [and that] is 'What's the bottom line?' "

NBA owners, citing losses of $300 million for the 2010-11 season and more than $1.5 billion over the six-year term of the just-completed CBA, are seeking significant reductions in player compensation. They want a hard salary cap, shorter contracts and a dramatic shift in the split of basketball-related income (BRI), which most recently gave 57 percent to the players. NBA players divided $2.176 billion from league BRI of about $3.8 billion for the past season.

The owners' most recent proposal, in the form of a 10-year CBA, would guarantee players at least $2 billion annually but exclude them from much of the anticipated growth over the deal's term.

The union in June proposed salary givebacks of about $530 million over a five-year deal in what would effectively reduce their share of BRI to 54.3 percent. They are determined to fight a hard salary cap, and repeatedly have urged the owners to address issues of profitability and competitive balance through more aggressive revenue-sharing.

The sides had intended to spend some of Monday's session talking at length about non-economic issues. That didn't last long, Fisher said.

"They're all intertwined," he said. "You can only go so long discussing non-economic issues or system issues -- hard salary cap, flex cap, soft cap. It eventually all brings you back to 'What is the split?'

"That's going to be the hard work that's ahead of us over the next several weeks. How to get to a place were the split is what we consider to be fair for our players but also makes an attempt to address the concerns and the issues that our owners are putting out."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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