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Steve Aschburner

Back in their corners, owners, players plot next moves

Posted Sep 15 2011 8:38AM

DALLAS -- If the NBA's intensifying labor dispute can be thought of as a fiercely fought playoff game, then both sides will be huddled in an extended TV timeout Thursday.

The clock in this little game, however, still is ticking. And as X's & O's get scribbled and updated on the nearest available whiteboards, there are a lot more voices piping up at one end of the floor.

Sometimes that happens -- sticking with the analogy -- when the scoreboard starts to tilt against a team.

With the NBA lockout wrapping up its 11th week Thursday -- and fast approaching an 11th hour -- the two sides are regrouping more than 1,000 miles apart, the owners in Dallas and the players in Las Vegas.

The session in Texas is a Board of Governors meeting that, despite the urgent context, has an air of business as usual. Basketball remains shut down for the 30 franchises with the scheduled opening of training camps less than three weeks away, but the expected agenda reads a lot like any old BOG gathering: Reports from the revenue-sharing and labor relations committees, discussion of pending franchise sales in Philadelphia and Atlanta and assorted other topics.

This isn't business as usual, of course, and presumably there will be further talk of contingencies for season-ticket refunds, delayed or cancelled sponsorships and the handling of broadcast revenues that eventually might have to be returned. NBA commissioner David Stern said no vote would be taken to authorize the postponement of training camps, though that could be a formality anyway; Stern and the league's top negotiators had been granted the authority to call the lockout without such a vote.

Meanwhile, the National Basketball Players Association gathering in Las Vegas, growing out of the Impact Basketball training and games there, is a direct response to the lockout and a breakdown in negotiations Tuesday in New York. Initially, a group of 40 to 60 players was anticipated at what figured to be an informational briefing on the collective bargaining talks.

With the players on the defensive now -- their offer Tuesday of further reductions in salaries, while maintaining the current soft salary-cap system, went nowhere with the owners -- attendance could balloon at the meeting, putting a host of reactions, emotions and strategies in play.

One voice reportedly invited to talk with the players: DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association. According to several outlets, Smith was expected to address the basketball players on the importance of staying unified, especially with the NBA talks seemingly stalled.

Both union president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter warned that the 2011-12 season likely would not start on time. And Hunter made it clear that the owners' demand for a hard salary cap -- with an expected drop in the number and length of guaranteed contracts -- is a deal-blocker for the players.

"There is no question in my mind the players are unified, that if this is the best deal they can get, they've instructed us that they're prepared to sit out," Hunter said.

The meeting in New York on Tuesday was larger than the three previous bargaining sessions, broadened to include the union's executive committee and the owners' labor-relations committee. The respective gatherings in Dallas and Las Vegas will be bigger still, with more opinions voiced and tactics suggested.

The owners have a better chance of keeping their discussion behind closed doors or at least contained -- NBA commissioner David Stern wields a hammer of hefty fines up to $1 million for those who talk publicly from the management side. So even while Hunter was alluding to a "division of interest" within the owners' ranks relative to a lengthy lockout -- and Stern was acknowledging the differing views held by the competitive billionaires who operate NBA teams -- the union has several hundred voices, and their agents, with which to contend.

That's why, what happens in Vegas already was getting out of Vegas on Wednesday night. Phoenix Suns forward Jared Dudley, after an Impact Basketball game, was quoted on the Salt Lake Tribune's Web site as saying the players are back at "square one."

"I expect us to come in with a game plan," said Dudley, the Suns' union representative. "I expect Billy to be open, talking to us about what we're going to do from here on. Because obviously the owners and David Stern have made their standpoint, so we have to make ours. I don't know what we're going to do. If we're going to accept the deal -- which I almost 100-percent guarantee we're not -- and where we're going to go from there."

One possible direction might be toward union decertification, a legal maneuver being urged by some players' agents that might gain their clients leverage if they then were able to mount a lawsuit for anti-trust violations against the league. The NFL players went that route, but reached a contract agreement and abandoned the move before a resolution. The NBA has filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against decertification as a viable option for the players, with the union responding in kind.

Hunter has been waiting for the outcome of a National Labor Relations Board complaint filed by the players this spring that the owners were not bargaining in good faith. He said Tuesday that a decision could come late this month or in early October.

Hunter also said the owners eventually might be swayed from a hard cap system by the loss of NBA games and business, and by the defection of more players to compete internationally as a way of earning income during -- and perhaps staying overseas after -- the lockout.

As union vice president Maurice Evans said: "As time passes, more guys are definitely going to defect. You won't be able to find the same combination of skill and talent and character that the 450 of us NBA players possess. You're not just going to find that at random to replace this product."

No further bargaining sessions are scheduled. But Stern said he expected the two sides to talk as soon as Friday about a time and place for the next meeting.

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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