Posted Sep 22 2011 6:19PM - Updated Sep 23 2011 11:15AM
NEW YORK -- There comes a point in labor talks for any pro sports league where progress gets judged not by the content of the contract proposals or by the characters in the room, but by the calendar against which it all is happening.
Or, in the case of the NBA's 84-day lockout, not happening.
After a bargaining session of slightly more than five hours Thursday, representatives from both sides were tight-lipped and glum -- in tone, in body language -- as they wrapped up the 12th lost week of NBA offseason. That's a particularly endangered species now, with just 11 days before the offseason is supposed to give way to the preseason, which itself yields after four weeks to the scheduled regular season.
But a scuttled offseason soon could slam into the preseason, which itself might collide with the regular season if a settlement isn't negotiated soon. Neither NBA commissioner David Stern nor players union president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers sounded as if a deal was closer Thursday than it was two weeks ago or two months ago.
ESPN and Yahoo each carried a report Thursday evening that the NBA already had made a decision to cancel the early schedule of preseason games (ESPN also reported that owners sought to reduce the players' share of basketball related-income to less than 50 percent.) Stern had declined to address preseason cancellations or postponements earlier in the day.
"We're not going to draw any conclusions," Stern told reporters from about 12 New York and national media outlets, adding simply that the parties hope to meet again next week. "I have no announcement to make today. But the calendar is not our friend."
Fisher made the same reference to the calendar. And he said: "We'll be back at it again next week, hopefully. Right now there isn't anything to report or say. I don't have any answers to your questions."
Here is the calendar -- in the extreme short-term -- by which both sides are working: Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver said they would report back to the owners' labor-relations committee Friday about this latest meeting. After that -- more likely sooner than later (as in Friday?) -- the league is expected to announce that the start of NBA training camps has been postponed indefinitely and some number of preseason games in early October have been cancelled.
The lead time necessary to rev up or shut down arena operations, sell more tickets or deal with refunds/returns and handle the logistics and preparation of teams that don't even know when their first practices will be held -- all of it might be too great already.
"We anticipate hearing from the Lakers in a week or so," Steve Tadlock, regional general manager of the Save Mart Center at Fresno State, said Thursday afternoon. The Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to open their October schedule against Golden State in Fresno on Oct. 9, the first day of preseason games. "We're treating it as one event, so it's no different from a concert for us. If it doesn't happen this year, we'll re-book it for next year."
Losing business at an NBA arena in the preseason might be one thing; those fans will get games, practice or real, eventually. But the league has games scheduled in 20 non-NBA markets in the first two weeks of October play; Fresno just happens to be first among those one-and-done buildings.
"The Lakers were very up-front before we entered into the agreement," Tadlock said. "They made clear what the work stoppage possibilities were. So it won't catch us off-guard, and we don't feel harmed or damaged."
So Tadlock's operation will likely refund or exchange tickets, same as it would if Keith Urban (scheduled to appear five days before Kobe Bryant and crew) came down with a case of laryngitis. "The Lakers have already said they would be back next year if it didn't work out this year," the manager said.
Stern declined to answer most questions from the reporters Thursday. Asked, for instance, if he would make a recommendation to the owners on their conference call to cancel some portion of the preseason, the commissioner said: "I'm not going to say."
"The most important thing is to see whether we can't have negotiations conducive to ultimately getting a deal," Stern said, "which is what our committee and the board would like. And having these conversations with you doesn't add anything to that."
ESPN's report cited the owners' position that a split of BRI favor them with more than 50 percent, compared to the 57 percent that the players got last season in the last collective bargaining agreement. The players are believed to have offered to come down to 53 percent in a Sept. 13 session in New York, at which they rejected the owners' demand for a hard salary-cap structure.
Fisher was asked why, if the two sides weren't willing to meet again Friday given the urgency of the dispute, he was optimistic about any possible meetings next week. "There's always a reason to talk. We've said that the entire time," he said. "We'll keep at it. We'll keep communicating with our players, making sure they're aware of what's going on and we're all on the same page. We'll keep talking until we figure it out. Until we get a fair deal."
Stern, who turned 69 years old Thursday and said he received a birthday cake at some point before or during the labor session Thursday, took exception when his dour expression was noted. "Actually, my demeanor is flat, because I don't have anything to say," he said. "If you want me to smile, I'll smile."
On command, sure. But on the direction or momentum of the labor talks, it was clear the commish was in no smiling mood.
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