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David Aldridge

Air of uncertainty remains as new round of talks loom

Posted Nov 3 2011 9:40PM - Updated Nov 4 2011 8:34AM's Labor Central

NEW YORK -- This has not been a week for harmonious accord on either side of the negotiating table, with owner tweets and unnamed accusations of disloyalty to the union on the part of the union's president, and straight-on criticism from a former player that that president didn't have the mental chops to negotiate a new CBA. But the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association put all that aside for now, and agreed to continue discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement Saturday in New York, eight days after the last talks between the sides ended abruptly -- just as many around the league thought they were on the verge of a deal.

Last Thursday, with Commissioner David Stern yelling "tomorrow!" from the back bench as the union's executive director, Billy Hunter, talked about the possibility of a deal, everyone around the league thought the four-month-old lockout would end within days. The only thing that ended, however, was any hope of a full 82-game regular season. Now, it's good enough that the two sides will just be talking again. Whether this session lasts just a few hours or a couple of days, no one is under any illusions now that an agreement is within reach, including the members of the union's executive committee that met here Thursday.

"It was actually out before I could tell the guys when they got here," Hunter said. "But we have agreed to meet with the NBA. I don't know whether it's going to accomplish much, but the only way we can get a deal is by meeting, and that's what we're going to do."

The talks, which will include both sides' negotiating committees and may have other owners and players not on either committee, will come after both sides caucus amongst themselves to get a current reading of what those outside the room may want.

Sources with knowledge of the discussions of the league's Labor Relations Committee said the LRC would likely have a conference call Friday, the second meeting the committee has held this week. Owners who are adamant the league take 50-50 off the table could push at that meeting to formally rescind the offer and replace it with another one that would give owners a bigger share of Basketball Related Income.

One high-ranking team official, according to a source, said this week that Stern would be "hard-pressed" to find a majority of the league's 30 owners that would stick with the 50-50 proposal.

The pickup of talks between the league and union, first reported by the Boston Herald, was confirmed as the executive committee met both to go over strategy for Saturday and to do some damage control after a report which quoted a source who accused union president Derek Fisher of secretly meeting with the NBA and promising Stern that he could "deliver" a proposed 50-50 split of BRI to the players. The source also said that Hunter, along with a member of the union's executive committee, confronted Fisher about the supposed promise and forced him to reassess his 50-50 position.

Fisher first offered a general denial that the union was divided in a letter to players on Monday. On Tuesday, he gave a more specific denial about the allegations in a statement released through his publicist, saying he had issued a letter through his attorneys demanding a retraction for what he called "the libelous and defamatory stories" on the website. He also reportedly discussed the manner with members of the executive committee on a conference call. On Wednesday, former NBA guard Jerry Stackhouse said on Jim Rome's nationally syndicated radio show that he didn't believe Fisher was capable of negotiating a deal with Stern.

Asked specifically on Thursday if he had met secretly with Stern or any other NBA official at any time about a 50-50 deal that he could sell, Fisher said, "no, I did not."

Asked if there had been any meeting with any league official that could possibly be misconstrued, Fisher -- who declined to be interviewed on camera, meeting with a group of print reporters while seated next to Hunter and most of the union's executive committee -- said, "the only thing I can answer for myself is that I did not [meet with anyone secretly]. It's not possible. It's not possible for myself, Mr. Hunter, anybody sitting at this table, it's not possible for an individual to promise anyone anything related to the collective bargaining agreement. It has to pass the board's approval; it has to go to the player reps, then it has to be passed by the general body."

Asked if he had been promised any type of post-playing career work by anyone in the NBA, either directly or indirectly through other parties, Fisher shook his head no and started to speak, but was then interrupted by one of the union's vice presidents, Bucks guard Keyon Dooling, whose testimonial to Fisher was followed by similar sentiments from Wizards forward Mo Evans and Spurs forward Matt Bonner.

"I think he's the best president we've ever had," Dooling said. "I think he's articulate enough to relay the message. I think he's tough enough to get his feet dirty, to get his hands dirty. He's on the ground level with us. It really pains me, because not only do I look at Derek as a leader, but I look at him as a mentor. To hear all the confusion and the things that's being written and said about him, and what it does for our fight and our cause, it does a lot of detriment. And that's not even the true internal battle. I don't think the battle is within our union ... I'm the first vice president. And I stand behind him, and I stand behind Mr. Hunter."

For his part, Hunter denied that he'd had any confrontation with Fisher, or questioned his commitment to the union, saying he had an "excellent relationship" with Fisher and expected that relationship to continue in the future.

"We are together," Hunter said. "If you're expecting anything other than that, you're wasting your time. We are together. We support our president, he supports me, and we've had a great meeting and we're trying to get the players moving this program forward, so that we might soon get a deal. I don't know what else can be said."

The resumption of talks was instigated by federal mediator George Cohen, who called Hunter earlier this week and volunteered to once again try to mediate between the sides to try and broker a deal. Cohen and his assistant met with the league and union for three days last month in an attempt to find common ground and agreement on smaller issues before moving onto the bigger ones. After initial signs that they were making progress -- including a 16-hour session Oct. 17 that went from the afternoon of that day into the next morning -- talks, again, abruptly ended, with Cohen issuing a terse statement that his services would not, in his view, provide any additional help in getting the sides together.

But after Cohen's call, Hunter called Stern Wednesday, and Stern agreed to continue the talks Saturday. Both sides have agreed there would be no preconditions to meeting. Hunter indicated that if Cohen wanted to again mediate discussions, the union would be okay with that. It was not clear Thursday if the league would sign off on bringing Cohen back or preferred face-to-face discussions with the union.

"Hope springs eternal," Hunter said. "That's why we've suggested George or someone like that should get involved. Because we may need someone to serve as sort of a bridge between us."

Hunter also defended his decision to end the talks last week, saying that the players had given away too many items to the league for his and the union's comfort, and didn't want to "horsetrade" additional concessions on either the system or BRI splits in order to reach a deal. The union's current view is that no deal is better than taking a bad one.

"We were getting a lot of blowback from our players saying 'hey, you're giving away the house. Shut it down,' " Hunter said. "And that's what we did."

Hunter, seemingly frustrated by what he believes is media twisting of his words and misperceptions of his claims, agreed with the contention of executive committee member and Knicks guard Roger Mason, Jr. that the two sides are much further apart than media reports indicated last week. Along with the difference on BRI, the union says significant disagreements remain on numerous system issues, primarily the fate of teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold.

Talks broke down last Friday after the union would not accept league proposals that, according to sources, were either a 50-50 deal with severe restrictions on teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold in the future -- something the union believes will depress the free-agent market among those teams -- or a 53-47 split in favor of the owners with fewer restrictions on luxury tax payers.

The two sides had already agreed on many elements of a new luxury tax, with penalties for tax payers increasing from the dollar-for-dollar penalty in the previous CBA to $1.50 for each dollar up to $5 million that teams exceed the threshold. Teams would then be penalized $1.75 per dollar on the next $5 million they were over the threshold, $2.50 per dollar on the next $5 million over the threshold and $3.25 per dollar on the next $5 million they were over the threshold.

A team like the Lakers -- who paid $20 million in luxury tax penalites under the old CBA for being $20 million over the threshold -- would pay more than $40 million in penalties under the new tax.

Other key issues between the sides also remained unresolved. Along with the argument over BRI, the sides still had not resolved what rules teams that exceed the threshold would be under with regard to possible trades. The league wants to restrict the ability of such teams to make deals, especially sign-and-trade deals that allow free agents an additional year of salary than if they simply signed as a free agent with their new teams. The sides were still negotiating whether luxury-tax payers would be allowed to use the mid-level exception to sign players, as well as the status of teams that temporarily go above the luxury-tax threshold.

But there are still several owners that want to make a deal and are comfortable with a 50-50 offer.

Though he didn't say so explicitly, Miami Heat owner Micky Arison appeared to be one of them with a series of messages on his Twitter account last Friday that appeared to indicate he was not happy with the current hardliner-dominated stance. When one angry fan sent Arison a message that closed with ""Fans provide the money you're fighting over u greedy (expletive) pigs," Arison replied, "Honestly u r barking at the wrong owner." When another fan wrote, ""Then can you bark at the other owners? This is RIDICULOUS!!!," Arison replied: "Now u r making some sense."

The tweets were subsequently deleted from Arison's Twitter account. Stern fined Arison $500,000 on Monday.

Stern indicated after negotiations collapsed last Friday that the league's next BRI offer to the players Video would likely be less than 50-50, because of the lost revenues from cancelling the first month of the regular season. The NBA estimates that teams lost $200 million by not playing preseason games, and that owners will each lose about $200 million every month regular season games are not played.

"We're going to have to recalculate how bad the damage is," Stern said then. "So the NBA's offer will necessarily, its next offer will reflect the extraordinary losses that are starting to pile up now, and you can assume that our offer will change, to reflect the change of our economic circumstances."

Hunter also on Thursday reiterated his contention that the 50-50 offer from the league is not really a 50-50 offer if it is based on the league's gross revenues, not net revenues. He said that if the players accepted the current offer, they'll actually be giving up about $1.3 billion per year during the life of the next CBA: the $600 million to $700 million the league takes off the top of the gross amount for expenses, another $350 million he says the league has asked for in additional expenses off the gross and the $300 million in salary reductions from the 57 percent of BRI the players received in the old CBA to 50 percent in the new one.

"I don't think you guys really understand that," Hunter said. "And that's what I'm trying to make you understand and see, that it's not about the players being overreaching or greedy. If anything, they're overreaching. We've been more than fair. We've been too fair. And that's just the reality, because our guys want so much to play basketball."

Another source had indicated earlier in the week that it was still possible to have a season that would be close to a full 82-game slate if the two sides could somehow reach agreement by the end of this week. This source said that there was still a contingency plan in place that would extend the regular season into early May, compress the first-round of the playoffs from its current expanded schedule -- which allows for three weekends of coverage by ABC, ESPN and TNT, with three- and four-day breaks between games -- to a more normal schedule that would follow a more traditional every-other-day pattern. The source did not indicate a specific number of regular-season games that could be played under such a schedule, though it's likely it would be between 72 and 78 games.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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