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Steve Aschbruner

As optimism abounds, Friday looms as pivotal day in talks

Posted Oct 28 2011 12:20AM - Updated Oct 28 2011 9:04AM's Labor Central

NEW YORK -- The goal all along had been to get David Stern and Billy Hunter in a room together, not just at the start of a day's negotiations but at the end.

That's where they were Thursday, lending legitimacy and hope to what seemed like some serious positioning on a deal that could come as soon as Friday.

Wait, no snarky "Or not" qualifier? Nope. If only for a night, the content and tone of the key negotiators' comments to reporters after another seven-plus hours of collective bargaining talks deserved to stand on their own. As did the fact that, as Hunter and union president Derek Fisher spoke publicly first at the end of this session, Stern was seated in the back of the room. He was smiling, he was acknowledged a couple of times by Hunter and he even answered a question for the union chief, who had been asked when the difficult moves in this labor dance would get made.

"Tomorrow," the commissioner said.

Stern and Hunter both dropped big doses of optimism on NBA fans and followers, suggesting that the lockout, as long and damaging as it has been, might not see its fifth month.

"There are no guarantees that we'll get it done, but we're going to give it one heck of a shot," Stern said.

Said Hunter: "I think we're within striking distance of getting a deal."

Lucy holding the football just so again, poised to pull it away from an endlessly duped Charlie Brown? Maybe. That possibility will exist until it doesn't, in the same way that Stern says there is no deal on anything until there is a deal on everything. Despite the affable post-gamers Thursday and the nearly 23 hours of haggling over two days that preceded them, both sides admitted that they still have not met head-on the issue -- the split of basketball-related income (BRI) -- that broke off negotiations a week ago.

That is supposed to come Friday, after what has been discussion of, and some sense (or not) of progress in, system issues such as contract lengths and raises, salary-cap exceptions and a toughened luxury tax.

The most recent bargaining over BRI split stalled with the owners' offering a 50-50 deal and the players' moving from 57 percent to 52.5 percent. Each accused the other side of digging in on those numbers last week. But for a night, everything seemed to be in play and a belated Dec. 1 opening of the 2011-12 NBA regular season, perhaps, seemed possible.

"I can't tell you that we resolved anything in such a big way," Stern said of Thursday's session, "but there's an element of continuity, familiarity and, I would hope, trust that would enable us to look forward to tomorrow, where we anticipate there will be some important and additional progress, or not."

Said Hunter: "We're not that far down the road. But I'm hopeful that tomorrow we'll be. Commissioner Stern's back there smiling, so I guess that's a good indication."

Adam Silver and Fisher, Stern's and Hunter's sidekicks respectively, were more cautious in their comments about what might or might not happen Friday. And with good reason, considering the other nights just like this one in which management and labor seemed to be peeking under the hood of a deal.

Remember, even with a handshake agreement coming out of the small-group bargaining sessions being held this week, each would face the heavy lifting of selling that to its larger constituency. Neither has wanted to go -- financially, structurally or otherwise -- where the other has been standing, and some of the more strident owners and players already weren't happy with their side's concessions.

Mark Cuban dropped in Thursday evening after the session already had begun. The union is eager, with the topic shifting back to BRI, for economist Kevin Murphy to return from a day trip home to Chicago. Each time the mix changes, the dynamic in the room can change and, with it, the prospect of a deal.

But after 119 days of lockout, and a far more diligent (if uneven) schedule of talks than during the 1998-99 version, both sides have earned the right to ponder what's possible. It might remain as mysterious and elusive as whatever was in that "Pulp Fiction" briefcase Jules and Vincent gawked at. But it sure is alluring.

Stern seemed to know it, too, when asked if he, Hunter and the rest would be seen to have failed if they cannot reach a deal in the next few days. Said the commissioner: "The fair answer and direct and honest answer is yes."

Another layer of urgency never hurt anybody.

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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