Posted Nov 8 2011 9:09PM - Updated Nov 9 2011 8:55AM
NEW YORK -- It was about as presidential a moment as Derek Fisher ever was going to have. Not long after a meeting of National Basketball Players Association team representatives broke up Tuesday, Fisher -- the union's president -- turned around to find himself shaking hands with Bill Clinton.
The 42nd President of the United States, accompanied by his security detail, blew through the ballroom level of the midtown Manhattan hotel while on his promotional tour for Back To Work, described by the Los Angeles Times as "a rallying cry for Americans to see beyond partisan politics" and a "blueprint for a return to prosperity."
Reaching across an aisle. Fixing a broken economic model. Getting busy again with the business of earning. Come on, this had to be a staged photo op, right? The parallels to what Fisher and his fellow union members have been facing in their 131-day lockout and contractual tussle with the NBA could not have been more obvious. Right down to the title of Clinton's book, a copy of which he signed for Fisher as a hush fell over the room.
But no, Fisher said. They were just a couple of old pals from Little Rock, Ark., saying hello again.
"We go back a long way. We met when I was a teenager," said the Lakers guard and graduate of Arkansas -- Little Rock ('96). "We've stayed in touch since, probably, '99 or 2000. It was just a friendly conversation. He asked the question everybody else is asking: 'Am I going to see some basketball this season?' "
That question hung in the air Tuesday, though Fisher and the union expressed a desire to answer it by negotiating with the league right up to, and through, the deadline set by NBA commissioner David Stern on the owners' latest -- and purportedly expiring -- proposal. If, that is, Stern lets them.
In the meeting attended by a total of 43 players -- either actual player-reps or other players representing 29 of the league's 30 teams (Boston didn't make it) -- the union rejected the terms of the offer on the table. But it said it would try to meet with Stern and others from the owners' side before the arbitrary 5 p.m. Wednesday deadline attached to the offer when Stern announced it early Sunday morning. And beyond, for that matter, said NBPA executive director Billy Hunter.
"We'll just wait and see what it is the league does," Hunter said. "I would assume that if we end up being able to reach a deal -- whether it's reached tomorrow or reached four days from now -- even if they were to impose this artificial threat of rolling back to 47 [percent], I'm convinced that they would more than likely gladly come back and do the 50-50 deal if that's a possibility."
After that last bargaining session Sunday, Stern said the owners' offer would diminish across the board if Wednesday came and went without a new collective bargaining agreement. The lockout already has cost the NBA the preseason, a month of its 2011-12 regular season and unofficially some portion of December, allowing for a minimum of 30 days from handshake to tipoff.
The commissioner had said that the owners' next offer, in part to capture some of the lost revenues (each side loses about $400 million per month of missed games), would drop to a 47 percent share of basketball-related income for the players, down from the 50 percent currently proposed and 57 percent the players received in the previous CBA.
Also, a hard salary cap would be imposed, existing individual contracts would be rolled back by some percentage to accommodate the new tougher salary cap numbers and a variety of other system issues would tighten in the owners' favor.
"What we're saying is let's sit down," Hunter said. "Let's take care of business. Let's not blow up the game. Let's not lose a season. Let's not lose any more games. Let's get it back on track. And we're prepared to do it. We're open."
The owners might not be. In an interview Tuesday afternoon with NBA TV, Stern said that, whether there is another meeting with the union or not, the current proposal would remain as is -- until it gets replaced by the tougher one.
"I'll take Billy's call," Stern said. "I'll check in with the labor relations committee and if there's not a deal by close-of-business [Wednesday], I'm losing my confidence, but we'll always be ready to negotiate. Except our starting point is going to be a new proposal."
That might be a negotiating ploy or it might be a sign of the new reality facing Stern, in the terms of some hard-line owners who might be unhappy about budging as much as they already have in the current offer.
Fisher and Hunter have their own factions and splinter groups with which to deal, from players and agents angry about the concessions already made -- and pushing for a harsh, risky maneuver toward union decertification -- to those players who publicly have expressed a willingness to accept the owners' offer as it now stands.
To their credit, the tone of Tuesday's meeting -- at least by the time they all stood in front of a roomful of reporters -- was neither angry nor emotional. As for decertification, the player-reps apparently got no closer to beginning the petition process that initiates it than they did to voting on the league's current proposal.
"Very little discussion about decertification," Hunter said, leaving that mechanism and legal strategy to follow (anti-trust lawsuit, a grinding life cycle through the courts) for another day.
Said Cleveland rep Anthony Parker: "What we're focused on is just trying to get a deal. We needed to understand what each [system issue in the owners' offer] meant and then what we felt we needed. We want to play. We want to get a deal done. The system is very important to us, and we've conceded so much on the numbers of BRI, there are certain system issues that we have to have."
As the union leaders and individual players talked, during and after the news conference, they clearly were most unhappy with restrictions that would be placed on teams whose payrolls make them liable for a stiffened luxury tax. Not only would the tax itself go up but other limitations -- reducing the amount and availability of mid-level exception contracts for those teams, ending their sign-and-trade rights, hiking the tax further for repeated payers and a couple more -- would hurt a free agent's ability to choose his next team and reduce the number of teams bidding for his services.
They remain far apart from the league's offer. "We can't start a conversation from those points," Fisher said. "There has to be some change in their position on those areas."
Said Hunter: "Beyond tweaks."
The challenge for the union as the league's end-of-business deadline draws closer is -- meeting or no meeting -- to not blink, not panic, not anger, if the owners yank one football away and replace it with another that's less appealing.
"For them to use that tactic, we're not going to let it intimidate us," said San Antonio rep Matt Bonner, a member of the union's executive committee. "You've got to think that, if they want to get a deal, going backwards and creating more distance, that doesn't seem like a very logical way to move towards ending this thing.
"We've been pretty consistent the whole way in negotiating to try to get a deal done. We haven't done any hocus-pocus. Despite everything we've given, they're still not moving towards us and even talk about moving backwards. It's really hard to address that."
Moving targets always are trickier to hit.
NBA.com's John Schuhmann contributed to this report
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