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Labor talks grow serious, but progress isn't clear

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Aug 31 2011 8:29PM - Updated Aug 31 2011 8:44PM

NEW YORK -- When the two sides in the NBA's ongoing labor dispute emerged from a six-hour negotiating session Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, they actually came out with an agreement.

An agreement not to divulge the details of their talks.

Oh, you were expecting a different sort of agreement? Really? From only the second meeting since the league imposed the lockout on July 1? Look, this one was a long meeting -- the longest, in fact, since the sessions shifted to New York soon after The Finals -- but it wasn't some sort of magical meeting.

The sides might or might not remain far apart on the split of basketball-related income, a hard vs. soft salary-cap system, the length of player contracts and a bushel of other pending issues. With one apparent exception, based on the popular Las Vegas credo: What gets discussed in the NBA labor sessions now stay in the NBA labor sessions.

"It was a very engaging meeting," said union president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers. "We didn't waste a lot of time at all. ... We, kind of as a group, agreed to really continue just focusing on getting the deal done and really try to stay away from the semantics and the verbal jabs, the back-and-forth, and really try to remain focused on the deal points."

Fisher represented the players at Wednesday's meeting, along with National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and attorney Ron Klempner. The owners' reps were NBA commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and San Antonio's Peter Holt, chairman of the labor relations committee. They emerged with what sounded like a seriousness of tone and a renewed sense of purpose.

Silver and Stern upheld the mum's-the-word agreement, too. "I don't see any benefit to characterizing our positions," Silver said. "We are not apart in terms of an agreed urgency in getting a deal done. And we're not apart on the need to avoid missing games. And we're not apart on the agreed impact that will have, not just on our teams and our players but the communities in which they operate as well."

Stern deflected several questions about the meat of the meeting from a half dozen news outlets that sniffed out its location, held in a different midtown hotel from the previous New York talks. "The best way for us to get to a deal is to continue with that," Stern said, "rather than to just satisfy curiosity."

As a result, while both sides said they would continue to meet, neither volunteered specifics of where or when. The latter is more important than the former, given what commonly is assumed to be a one month's rolling horizon for canceling league events in lieu of a new collective bargaining agreement.

When the labor dispute prior to the 1998-99 season lingered into September, training camps in October were postponed and preseason games were cancelled soon thereafter. When negotiations dragged into October, the first two weeks of the regular season were lost.

Neither side would commit Wednesday to a deadline for getting a deal this time that would preserve the entire 2011-12 schedule. Working up to or soon after Labor Day would seem to be vital -- but no one said that, either.

"There is clearly enough time," Stern said. "We don't have any deadlines in mind. We just have meetings in mind and discussions in mind."

Said Fisher: "We have not tried to set a ... particular date and increase the urgency that's already there. I don't think either side feels that that's needed. There's enough pressure as there is."

What's a realistic turnaround time from handshake agreement on a new CBA to NBA basketball in one form or another? "Guys are continuing to work out and train, and prepare themselves for the season to start at any time," Fisher said. "Players are physically and mentally prepared to handle [any] circumstances."

Again, no new formal proposals were made -- there have been none since June, though Fisher said they covered topics "from A to Z" Wednesday. The owners continue to seek a reduction in player compensation to address what they say was an aggregate loss of $300 million in 2010-11, with 22 of the league's 30 teams losing money.

They have proposed cuts either at the start of a new labor deal or, by excluding the players from anticipated revenue growth in coming seasons, over time in what essentially would be a long-term pay freeze. The owners also seek a hard salary cap as a means of improving competitive balance, compared to the current system that allows large-market teams to spend two or three times as much as small-market teams on player payrolls.

The players contend that the pay freeze would cost them an estimated $7.6 billion over the term of a 10-year deal. They have offered givebacks of approximately $630 million via a reduction in their share of BRI from 57 percent to 54.3 percent. The union also wants to see the owners address their competitive-balance issues with more aggressive revenue-sharing, and feel that a hard cap would lead to fewer guaranteed contracts and shorter deals.

Whether those topics were nipped or tucked or entirely ignored Wednesday wasn't known because, hey, the principals were not talking.

"We just decided it's not in anyone's best interest to get into what actually happens in the meetings from this point on," Fisher said. "There's too much to go through, to try to come out of each meeting or go into each meeting saying what did or didn't happen, who did what and who didn't do what. Things seem to get spun out of control, either by us or by them. So we're just going to focus on the deal.

"We just feel that a lot less talking outside of the room and more talking inside the room is better for everyone."

Stern, whose disappointment after the Aug. 1 session included a comment that the union wasn't bargaining in good faith, didn't seem all that more cheered Wednesday. But he didn't break the details embargo.

"We had a meeting before Labor Day and we agreed to continue to meet," the commissioner said. "There will be meetings and meetings."

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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