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Steve Aschburner

Players, owners each stress unity -- from 1,000 miles apart


Posted Sep 16 2011 7:43AM

DALLAS -- On a day when the NBA players union assured the public that its members remain unified and committed in the pursuit of a collective bargaining agreement to end the league's lockout, no one was surprised when the owners responded in kind a few hours later.

It was such a predictable call-and-raise -- "You think you're unified? Well, we're really unified!" -- that you might have thought the league's Board of Governors meeting had been held in a Las Vegas casino too.

But no, representatives of the NBA's 30 franchises met Thursday afternoon in a convention hotel in northern Texas. They had business beyond the lockout to discuss, including a new labor agreement with the referees, pending team sales in Philadelphia and Atlanta and arena developments in Sacramento.

No one, however, had his priorities skewed -- the lockout, the lack of progress in Tuesday's bargaining session in New York and the dual objectives of a new CBA and enhanced revenue-sharing among the teams dominated the Board of Governors meeting.

And probably the biggest takeaway from what NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver shared with reporters afterward was that a hard salary-cap system -- the presumed cornerstone of the league's desire for greater competitive balance -- is negotiable.

With union president Derek Fisher and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter this week characterizing the players' refusal to accept a hard cap as a "blood issue," a stance they reaffirmed Thursday, the impression was that the owners were dug in just as fiercely. But maybe not.

"Virtually unanimous," Stern said, "because some [owners] might say they want a hard cap with this wrinkle and some people might say they want a hard cap with that wrinkle, but I would say there's unanimity in favoring a hard cap, period.

"That said, the committee has been authorized to negotiate on all subjects."

Unless management was trying to score brownie points with the National Labor Relations Board as the two sides' dueling complaints about good-faith bargaining grind to a decision in the next few weeks, Stern's willingness several times in the news conference to leave a door open to some other system -- the familiar soft cap, a "flex" cap or another creative approach -- seemed new. It was a bit of sunlight breaking through what had been a glum and increasingly rancorous week of labor talks.

"From the beginning we were never caught up with the label of a hard cap," Silver added. "What we've said from day one is we need a system where all 30 teams can compete for a championship, and we have absolute unanimity among our owners on that principle."

"Unanimity" was trending big both in Las Vegas and Dallas Thursday as each side had cause to dispute reports of factions and "divisions of interest," as Fisher had cited about the owners.

For the union, a potential end-around by a group of powerful agents had revived talk of decertification, a legal gambit intended to gain leverage against the owners but also packing a huge possible downside for the NBPA. The players' fate no longer would be in their collectively bargaining hands but up to the courts, on the courts' timetable.

Hunter and Fisher fended off those rumblings at least temporarily, and even brought in NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith to preach solidarity to the players. "I've never seen this union as strong as we are collectively right now," veteran forward Jermaine O'Neal told the Associated Press after the meeting.

Said Stern: "We would like to negotiate with a strong union capable of delivering a deal, and that's something that is, I think, a very positive step."

Similarly, the owners felt compelled to challenge Fisher's assertion in a letter to NBPA members that there was a "fundamental divide" within management's ranks. The Lakers guard also said he thought fewer than half of the owners were committed to a hard cap.

Also, a report on ESPN.com claimed that a hard-line stance by Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert and Phoenix owner Robert Sarver, during Tuesday's session, derailed what could have been significant progress. Citing unnamed sources, the story alleged that New York's James Dolan and the Lakers' Jerry Buss were "visibly annoyed" by the two newer owners.

Stern didn't even wait to be asked about that allegation. "It is so wrong and incorrect and fictional," he said, "that I think I can understand why they would only attribute it to sources and that nobody would be willing to stand behind it."

One person who was inside the Board of Governors meeting told NBA.com that, if the players are banking on a splintering of the owners as their best path to a favorable deal, "they would be making a mistake."

As for other league business:

• Stern insisted that the owners spent as much time Thursday on revenue-sharing as they did on collective bargaining strategies. "Absolutely," he said. "The planning committee has a meeting scheduled for Friday in New York. We got solicited input from 30 teams on this, and we're teeing it up in a way that it'll be ready to go when we -- if and when we -- make a deal on the collective bargaining side."

The owners have determinedly kept revenue-sharing separate from CBA talks and have disclosed no details. Stern, however, has said more than once that an enhanced system would triple the amount of money currently transfer from the league's "have's" to its "have-nots."

• The only vote taken was to ratify the five-year labor agreement with the referees. There was none on the 76ers' or Hawks' sales, and Stern had said before leaving New York that no vote would be taken to authorize postponing training camps or canceling preseason games.

"The clock is ticking, but it hasn't struck midnight yet," he said Thursday before heading home. "We have time to do what has to be done, and we'd like to do it, actually."

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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