Posted Sep 30 2011 9:20PM - Updated Oct 1 2011 3:05PM
NEW YORK -- It wasn't closing time. No reception had ended. But the lights in the hotel ballroom seemed to get cranked brighter, higher, hotter after the latest round of NBA labor negotiations wrapped up Friday because the wattage in the room went up considerably.
The players' union had plugged in its star power.
Twenty-one players -- including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand, Baron Davis, Ben Gordon and more -- accepted the National Basketball Players Association's invitation to participate in the collective-bargaining talks that accelerated even as the lockout grinded through its third full month. There was no deal, other than an agreement that the two sides would meet again Saturday and possibly Sunday.
But the atmosphere at a luxury hotel in midtown Manhattan got ratcheted up by more than just the calendar. Some of the league's most recognizable names and most formidable talents put a face on the negotiations that had been missing through recent rounds of small- and large-group sessions.
"Some of our guys standing here right now have been questioned in terms of their commitment to this process, to the players association and to the game," said union president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers, as most of the stars stood behind him at a news conference. Others such as Kevin Durant and Chris Paul left before the photo ops.
"Their presence here today ... says a lot. These guys have always been here with us in spirit. They've always been here with us in terms of the cause. They've been with us in concerns and recommendations."
They were with Fisher and other members of the union's executive committee in passion, too, based on one heated exchange during the long afternoon.
A source told NBA.com's David Aldridge that at one point, NBA commissioner David Stern was emphatically directing a comment -- and pointing his finger -- at Wade, the Miami Heat's All-Star guard. Wade objected and interrupted Stern, reportedly saying: "Don't point your finger at me. I'm a grown man. I have children."
The meeting broke at that point. A few minutes later, Stern sought out Billy Hunter, NBPA executive director, to briefly talk privately. Soon thereafter, the session resumed.
"It was important that the owners see that our star players feel the way they do," said Roger Mason of the New York Knicks, one of the union's vice presidents. Like Fisher and most members of the executive committee -- besides Paul -- Mason is a role player. They have handled most of the bargaining, but felt it was time for the league's biggest names to step forward.
"Our union is strong and we all feel the same way. It's easy to say our union feels a certain way, but when these guys come out and speak and [the owners] hear it for themselves, I think they might have been a little surprised."
The heat and light wasn't directed only at the owners. During a huddle of the players only, there was much grousing about -- and even talk of walking out over -- the owners' suggestion that the union settle for 46 percent of basketball-related income (down from 57 percent in the most recent contract).
As they debated the possible split, one player reportedly said, "Hey, 50/50 is better than nothing." And a source in the room said other players shouted him down.
"In a long meeting of this magnitude," Fisher said, "you're going to have your volatility that's going to be back and forth and up and down. I think we've done the best job we can at stepping out of the room when necessary, continuing dialogue when necessary.
"It's an open room. Everyone's an adult. We can say things we feel need to be said. But at the same time, this is business. There's a certain level of professionalism that's required. So any time we get where it becomes personal, emotional, then it's our responsibility to bring it back and keep everybody focused on what the goal is -- and that's trying to get an agreement done."
Both sides spoke to concerns fueled by an ESPN.com report, that without a deal by the end of this weekend, the entire 2011-12 season would be canceled. That claim circulated after the small-group session Wednesday, based on comments Stern made afterward.
But the players said they did not believe that. And Stern said that he never actually said that.
"No matter what the eventuality is," the commissioner said Friday, "the idea that we would at an early stage cancel the season is as ludicrous today as it was when it was first written [Wednesday]."
Hunter echoed that separately: "I would add that for those pundits, reporters, who have been speculating, I think their speculations are way off base."
Stern did address the issue of time passing, a deal not done and regular-season openers scheduled for Nov. 1. Based in part on the events of the 1998-99 lockout that produced a shortened 50-game season, one month's lead time is considered about the least the NBA can manage in going from a handshake CBA agreement to the start of any season.
"We agreed that once we start to lose them and players lose paychecks and owners lose money, positions on both sides will start to harden," Stern said. "Everybody on both sides agrees that this is the time to do it."
The owners came with numbers as well. Nine of the 11 members of their negotiating committee were present, with only Dallas' Mark Cuban and Boston's Wyc Grousbeck unable to attend. Additionally, Miami's Micky Arison was present.
Stern said that the owners' separate discussions on revenue-sharing had progressed considerably. In fact, he said that details of the more aggressive plan for transferring money from the NBA's bigger-earning franchises to the have-nots were shared with the players. The rough version calls for at least a tripling of the $60 million shared in the past, Stern said, with a quadrupling to at least $240 million by the third year of a new CBA.
"So we're not finished wth that yet -- we're still tweaking it vis a vis our teams -- but we told the union that," Stern said.
Neither side made a new formal proposal, although all the "ideas and concepts" mentioned often were in play. And by having more parties on both sides in the room, the need for middle men and second- or third-hand explanations was diminished. That in itself is a good thing, Stern said.
Consider Miami forward Udonis Haslem, who participated for the first time and came away "very encouraged."
"I think everybody's minds and hearts are in the right place, so that's a start," Haslem said as he hit the sidewalk Friday evening. "It's one thing to hear 'Everybody wants a deal.' It's another thing to see it."
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