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Steve Aschbruner

Marathon labor meeting results in ... more meeting

Posted Oct 19 2011 3:18AM

NEW YORK -- Extraordinarily long, still in search of extraordinary results.

That's how the NBA left its labor negotiations in the wee hours Wednesday, ending a bargaining session between owners and players that stretched from 10 a.m. ET on the lockout's 110th day until 2 a.m. ET on its 111th. And even then, there was more talking scheduled: A return to the table in just eight hours, again under the watchful eye of federal mediator George H. Cohen, the new player in the room, all in an attempt to find a compromise and stem the bleeding.

In the time it took for the two sides in the dispute to arrive, meet and finally, leave the Manhattan hotel where they convened Tuesday-into-Wednesday, a young couple down in SoHo met, got engaged, eloped and picked out names for the baby and colors for the nursery. The Republican candidates for President knocked off another 14 debates, leaving just 33 to go. And a runaway zoo in Ohio frightened the populace, scared the animals even worse and got turned into a major Hollywood motion picture that already is available on-demand via your cable system.

The impact of Cohen's first day of involvement in the NBA lockout was evident less in the quality of the negotiating -- who really knew what went on in that room beyond the principals? -- than in its quantity. It wasn't clear post-midnight, for instance, how much time had been spent caucusing separately or if the significant gaps on an array of issues had been narrowed. But none of the heavy hitters on either side got a get-out-of-jail-early card.

All of them -- NBA commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, union president Derek Fisher, NBPA executive director Billy Hunter, a dozen owners on the league's labor relations committee, seven NBA players who are officers on the union's executive committee and some attorneys -- stuck it out for the longest session by far in collective-bargaining talks that began two years ago.

And when they adjourned, they said ... nothing.

"The federal mediator has asked both sides to refrain from making public comments," NBA spokesman Mike Bass told a group of reporters and cameramen who had waited out the session.

For comparison, consider that representatives of the owners and the players met six times from Sept. 30 through Oct. 10 for a total of 32 hours. Yet when they emerged from the last of those sessions, so little progress had been made in a six-hour stab at compromise that Stern announced the cancellation of the regular season's first two weeks. Worse, both sides sounded more dug in, and further apart, than they had the week before.

Next, Hunter and Stern hit the airwaves, Hunter in an appearance Oct. 12 on WFAN radio in New York and Stern countering on the station the next day. The commissioner also did interviews on NBA TV and other broadcast outlets to get the league's perspective out.

It wasn't until the announcement last week that Cohen would enter the fray that the focus snapped back to negotiations. The director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliatory Service, appointed by President Obama in 2009 after an illustrious career in labor law and mediation, Cohen traveled from Washington, D.C., to New York to meet separately Monday with the league and the union. Then they gathered, on time at 10 a.m., for the start of Tuesday's meeting and -- meal and bathroom breaks not withstanding -- stayed there.

And stayed there.

A glimmer that the night finally was ending came when Memphis' Tony Allen, not in attendance, put out a message on Twitter under the handle "aa000G9: if they geta deal done!! Somebody @ me!!"

Soon Knicks guard Roger Mason Jr., a VP in the players' union, responded on his "MoneyMase" account: "@aa000G9 go to bed bro"

After all, 10 a.m. would come around pretty fast.

So what did it all mean?

• It meant that both sides might finally grasp the urgency in play, what with the 2011-12 season already scarred, games (and revenue opportunities) presumably lost and more in the offing. Stern had said last week that his "gut" told him that, without a deal resulting from Cohen's debut day, the league still might not be operating by Christmas. "If there's a breakthrough, it's going to come on Tuesday," the commissioner told NBA TV. "And if not, I think that the season is really going to potentially escape from us because we aren't making any progress."

• It meant that Cohen had successfully imposed a gag order on both sides, a common tool in such situations. Following recent meetings, the talking that went on afterward by Stern, Silver, Hunter and various "sources" got more traction than whatever was said behind the closed doors. It might even have hardened positions on both sides. But that's not how Cohen rolls and his ability to stifle the rhetoric -- or just send them all off to bed, exhausted -- was a plus.

• It meant that Cohen hadn't lost the room. While the fruitless negotiations to this point have seemed like an immovable object, the powerful men on both sides didn't bowl over Cohen like unstoppable forces. Had the players or the owners overwhelmed or tried to intimidate him, the meeting would have ended much earlier. Then again, Kevin Garnett wasn't in the room Monday.

• It meant that there still is much to discuss. Some reports late in the evening hinted that the biggest issues -- the split of basketball-related income and a stiffer luxury-tax system -- had been kept on a back burner. It might be that Cohen has a set procedure for inserting himself into such talks. It could be he steered away from hot buttons. Both sides have said in the past that they won't have a deal on anything until they have a deal on everything. Nailing down everything figures to take time.

• It meant that the warring sides will do a lather-rinse-repeat on Wednesday and that the NBA's previously scheduled business will be adjusted. The league had a pre-arranged Board of Governors meeting scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, with labor and revenue-sharing committees due up first, followed by full-board sessions. The plans will get shoved back to accommodate the Wednesday morning meeting.

It is, after all, a bit more important at the moment. Someone better bring coffee.

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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