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Steve Aschburner

Quietly, Quinn helped broker deal that ended NBA nightmare

Posted Dec 2 2011 1:46PM

• 2011 NBA lockout timeline

• Labor Central

Jim Quinn, renowned litigator and longtime adversary of NBA commissioner David Stern, had placed the phone calls. He had navigated the ill will, convinced the warring parties to lay down their rhetoric and arranged for the summit that would lead the league's owners and players -- after one more grueling, orgiastic, 15-hour negotiating session -- from "nuclear winter" to a Merry Christmas.

Jim Quinn
Jim Quinn
Courtesy Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP

But Quinn didn't stick around for the final dickering or the handshakes. He was down in Key West, Fla., by that time, yielding to leverage of a different sort.

"I had my 45th wedding anniversary," Quinn said in a phone interview with the other day. "And if you want to have a 46th, you do things like that. But I had sort of set the agenda for the meeting, so I was confident it was going to get done."

Meet the man who saved the 2011-12 NBA season. Or, at the very least, meet the man behind the men who saved the season. Quinn, who chairs the 500-lawyer global litigation practice at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and whose work on behalf of NBA players dates to his role in the Oscar Robertston antitrust suit in the 1970s, was the fellow who got the two sides talking again when it seemed that's the last thing they wanted to do.

The NBA's fate was headed to a Minnesota nuclear winter with the players' decision to dissolve their union and file an antitrust lawsuit in U.S. federal court in Minneapolis. The process of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement had melted down. Things got so bad that, with lawyers fully on board, the dispute had degenerated into a juvenile game of chicken.

Little did people know that, by the time players' attorney David Boies was mapping out the dynamics of "who picks up the phone to call whom first," Quinn already had done that, making contact with both sides.

"We had three face-to-face meetings as a group," Quinn said, in the days from about Nov. 18 to Nov. 23. "Then we had a bunch of telephone calls. Clearly there came a time when having a different approach was worthwhile trying, and I got to be the different approach."

A post-mortem on the end days of the lockout -- maybe post-partum is a better term, since it all gave birth to the coming 66-game season -- might not seem important at the moment. With trade rumors and free agency speculation and excitement about the Christmas tipoff, dissecting what finally went right in the long labor impasse between owners and player is not at the top of any fan's reading list.

But without Quinn and his maneuvers behind the scenes, all of the current frenzy might still be on hold. Of course, if only for a phone call or two a month or six weeks earlier, the season might have been saved in whole.

It was back on Oct. 24, after yet another breakdown in bargaining talks, that Quinn's name was first offered publicly as someone who might make a difference. He had been suggested to the National Basketball Players Association weeks before.

After one failed meeting in late September, I had handed union president Derek Fisher a letter with contact info for a fellow named Michael O'Daniel. Who is O'Daniel? A journalist and statistician for more than 50 years and a partner in Oscar Robertson Media Ventures since 1997. He knew Quinn through the Big O's court battles and thought the lawyer who had done so well for the players then, and multiple times since, could be helpful again.

"I find it frustrating and unfortunate," O'Daniel said the other day, "that so many of today's players -- and more so, the people who represent them -- seem to have so little regard for the perspective and wisdom that Oscar Robertson and other previous NBPA presidents could have brought to the proceedings. But that's been the case for a number of years now.

"Fortunately, after a five-month stalemate during which various gatekeepers resisted our attempts ... Jim was big enough to take the initiative on his own and bring the opposing parties together. From the time he made his first 'off the record' contacts to the time a deal was done took maybe five to 10 days. You can draw your own conclusions from that."

Still heavily involved in sports litigation -- he played a vital role for the NFL players in their summer fight with the NFL, overseeing the union's decertification and the Tom Brady class-action lawsuit that led to some leverage -- Quinn might have had one extra incentive to pick up the phone this time.

On Nov. 18, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature story on Jeff Kessler, the NBPA's outside counsel and lead negotiator who formerly was a partner of Quinn's. It detailed Kessler's long history of wrangling with the NBA and Stern, dating to the Robertson suit and every legal dispute in the 1980s, '90s and since. It never mentioned Quinn.

O'Daniel called the story to Quinn's attention. Within hours, the back channels of compromise in the 2011 lockout were open for business.

Coincidence? Maybe, but ...

"It was probably a dash of this and a dash of something else," Quinn said. "They just needed to get people back talking, and talking in a way that would get a settlement done."

How did Quinn know the time was right, beyond the urgency of a shrinking season? "It's really kind of visceral," he said. "You listen to both sides. You try to discern whether or not these people really want to settle. The sense I got after talking to each side was, these are people who generally want to find a way to compromise."

The debate forever will be, what got it done? Was it the litigation that got the process unstuck after the owners overplayed their hand, their ultimatum triggering a fight-or-flight response in the highly competitive players? Was it the calendar and the dying chance to save a legitimate season and maximum revenue days? Or was it, at the end, the mix of personalities in the room?

Quinn believes the first two were necessary ingredients but the third -- the relationships between the parties and some respect stretching back decades -- was every bit as vital. He was able to accomplish what federal mediator George Cohen could not.

"It doesn't hurt, I can tell you that," Quinn said. "At a break in one of the meetings, Stern and I were reminiscing about the Robertson case. That's like 40 years ago. We were the only ones who could go back that far."

Parties on both sides were reluctant to talk much about Quinn's actual tactics, citing a "confidentiality understanding" from the start of his phone contacts to them. But Kessler did talk generally about Quinn's role as a facilitator, which in this instance brought a calm and smoothness to what had been rancorous exchanges.

"There have been a lot of erroneous reports -- he didn't come in to be the lead negotiator or anything like that," Kessler said. "He came in to try to bring the parties together. Jim has been doing it for a very long time. He's well known to everybody on both sides. He has a relatively calm personality. And I think he performed a very positive function."

Quinn returned the kind words on Kessler, whose absence from the room at the end also has been cited as key to the deal. Kessler and Stern, in particular, long have had frictions, to the point that Kessler's contributions via speakerphone in the final meeting almost derailed the settlement.

"In the week or 10 days I was involved, I think Jeffrey was helpful in getting things done," Quinn said. "Even though he wasn't in the room, I didn't have the sense he was trying to prevent something from happening. He was doing his job. I think it's been a little unfair that people were saying, 'He's been replaced' somehow. He was still involved. He was just playing a different role. Once they disclaimed, he was a lawyer for those players."

Quinn, though, was the broker, whether all the owners, players and NBA fans realize it or not.

"Clearly I'm not looking for credit," Quinn said. "And I presume that I'll get paid at some point. So I'm not worried about it."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years.

You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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