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Steve Aschbruner

Labor notebook: Man who could make difference in talks

Posted Oct 24 2011 11:43PM - Updated Oct 25 2011 6:22AM's Labor Central

Federal mediator George Cohen packed up his facilitatin' and went home after the NBA's labor talks broke down last Thursday in New York. Rev. Jesse Jackson was in the hotel where the two sides met but he never got the chance to broker a deal.

Donald Trump, Dr. Phil and Henry Kissinger haven't been invited into the room during these collective bargaining sessions either, for that matter. But one man who might have changed up the dynamics, while bringing a professional lifetime's worth of experience, was available for the asking: Jim Quinn.

Who dat? Quinn is a longtime -- and respected -- adversary of NBA commissioner David Stern dating back to the historic Oscar Robertson antitrust suit in 1976. He represented the NBA players' association for almost 20 years and pulled some all-nighters with Stern and union director Billy Hunter to help end the 1998-99 lockout and salvage a shortened season.

More recently Quinn played a vital role for the NFLPA in its labor dispute with the NFL, overseeing the union's decertification and the Tom Brady class-action lawsuit that gave the players some leverage for further negotiations this summer. He teamed during the football lockout with former partner Jeffrey Kessler, who took over the NBPA work after the last lockout and remains the union's outside counsel.

"I'd be happy to help if I could," said Quinn, who chairs a 500-lawyer global litigation practice for Weil, Gotshal & Manages LLP. "I got involved [13] years ago to try to get the thing resolved, and we did get it done. They seem to be pretty far apart right now."

I first spoke with Quinn weeks ago, after learning of several back-channel attempts to put union leadership in touch with him. That same go-between urged Hunter and union president Derek Fisher to seek input from Robertson and other past NBPA leaders. Robertson in particular was willing to help -- but the NBPA contacted neither him nor Quinn.

The veteran litigator did hear from Stern, however, a few months ago. "He called me right after we filed the Brady lawsuit to wish me bad luck," Quinn said, chuckling. "We have a, I think, begrudging respect for each other. David and I go back to the earliest days of the Robertson lawsuit."

It was a different time. Salaries back then were a fraction of what they are now, and the battles between management and labor were more fundamental.

"When we were doing the Robertson case and, really, through the '70s and '80s into the '90s in football, the real focal point was free agency," Quinn said. "Ensuring that there would be a marketplace for players where they could move. That a player who truly was unhappy could go somewhere else.

"That was the focus of those fights, and obviously it led to significant increases in compensation because of competition. But that also was a factor of there being a hell of a lot more money around. Television injected all this money into the system and it had to go somewhere.

"Now this fight is much more about, effectively, the split. How much do the players get, how much should the owners get, what's fair -- and it's very complicated. How do you determine what's 'fair?' So you fight over it and ultimately you have to make a judgment about how long you're going to have to fight. And how much pain each side can endure."

Quinn used a union's decertification in football as a tool and thinks the NBPA ought to keep that as an option as well. He acknowledges that the NFL's fight was purely about divvying up profits, compared to the losses and issues faced by the NBA.

But Quinn added: "Since I've been doing this -- and that's for 40 years -- a lot of these issues are all about rules to protect [the owners] from being idiots. A lot of these guys are in for the ego of it. They want to win. And some are a lot better than others at judging talent. As we could see from the New York Knicks."

Both Stern and Kessler had positive reactions when Quinn's name was mentioned to them. But both also said the owners and the players have the right people in the room to get a deal.

Except that, at the moment, there is no room. Since meetings broke off Thursday, nothing has been scheduled.

Quinn, even weeks ago, had a sense of where this lockout was headed. "I expect that the lockout will stay in place sometime into the season," he had said long before Stern canceled games. "And possibly through the end of the year. Then something will get done. I'd be surprised if it's done earlier. I think it will be somewhat of a replay of last time."

No Cancellations ... yet?

An NBA spokesman declined to comment on a New York Daily News report Monday evening that the league, as soon as Tuesday, would cancel the next two weeks of the regular season. All games in the first two weeks, Nov. 1-14, were zapped in an announcement from Stern on Oct. 10.

An alternative would be for the NBA to postpone the start of the 2011-12 season "indefinitely" rather than deal in multiple cancellation dates. Based on the Oct. 10 verdict and the timeline of the 1998-99 lockout, an estimated three weeks to a month is needed to go from a handshake agreement to regular-season games, allowing for free agency, training camps and ironing out the final details of a new CBA.

KG's future paydays

After Kevin Garnett was cited -- with Boston teammate Paul Pierce and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant -- as one of the players sent in by the union to turn down the owners on a 50-50 deal back on Oct. 4, the Celtics' veteran star took heat for his financial security. In 16 NBA seasons, Garnett has made more than $300 million (including endorsements), so he's not exactly living check to check.

Some felt that Garnett -- with a $21.2 million salary for 2011-12 at the end of what will be his last mega-contract -- was putting his mouth where his money was. Others felt that, considering the deferred money due him, the 7-footer wasn't exactly at risk of bagging groceries in his 40s.

In fact, Garnett's self-funded pension (apart from his NBPA one) will be pretty plush. Two sources told that the Celtics forward will still have $35 million coming after he retires. He'll be due $5 million annually for seven years, the result of deferred salary Garnett and agent Andy Miller got in each of his last two contract extensions. Whatever portion is due from this season might be affected by games lost to the lockout, but it's not as if Garnett's financial spigot gets turned off next spring.

Lockout's chicken-or-egg

A new CBA and a more robust revenue-sharing system have been nudged along on parallel tracks before and during this lockout. That's the way the owners have wanted it, but the two ingredients -- both vital to the league's economics going forward -- have hardly been separate but equal.

The owners, after last week's round of labor talks, claim they need to know what system changes finally are made part of the next contract with the players before they can nail down the details of a revenue-sharing system. The union could say the same thing, of course, before agreeing to any more salary givebacks aimed at easing the league's $300 million in losses from 2010-11.

So far, the owners have provided the union with a rough sketch of their proposed money transfers -- promised to move about $150 million a year from the big-revenue markets to the small. But something more concrete might move things along.

"It's made it much more difficult," Fisher told me after Thursday's breakdown. "We've been clear from the beginning that we don't feel the entire solution should come just from concessions by the players.

"If we had a much better feel for what the revenue-sharing plan might be ... there would be a place to meet in the middle that would not necessarily make us happy but would save our season. They've made it clear that, until they know how much they're getting from us, they can't clear their plan. We can't just allow that to happen that way."

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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