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Stern puts bully in bully pulpit, and it's not helping one bit

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Derek Fisher (right) and the NBPA have yet another ultimatum to deal with from David Stern. (Getty Images)  
Derek Fisher (right) and the NBPA have yet another ultimatum to deal with from David Stern. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- Billy Hunter, in his folksy, fire-and-brimstone moments, likes to call this blowback. And the blowback started blowing with a fury Friday. A once disorganized, harmless storm suddenly formed a center, choosing a direction and bearing down on the 2011-12 season like a hurricane.

It was always understood that a small group of dissident agents would rally together and oppose whatever deal the National Basketball Players Association came up with when the negotiations reached the zero hour. This has been going backwards for the NBPA for a long time, and the players were backed into a corner Thursday night -- lined up against a wall behind the beleaguered union leadership like hostages. Grim-faced and beaten, the players seemed to understand this was the end of the line.

The buck was stopping, and so were the negotiations. David Stern's long, painful death march was coming to an end.

"We feel as if we've gotten to a place where there's nothing else to talk about," Fisher said.

And now the storm was building, even before Fisher -- the five-time champion now getting an uncomfortable window into how the business of the NBA gets done -- had even gotten out of the press conference room Thursday night. And before the union had even confirmed the details of its meeting with 30 player reps at 9 a.m. ET Monday, the blowback was sending gale-force winds and sideways rain straight to New York to blow away this potential for a deal -- obliterate a possible end to the lockout and the start of a 72-game season beginning Dec. 15.

According to multiple people involved in the process, the number of agencies involved in the movement to decertify the union -- in response to the one-sided collective bargaining agreement that always was going to come of it -- began to quickly multiply Friday. Moderate agents who had long opposed decertification or remained neutral were suddenly climbing aboard like stowaways on a runaway train. Two of the agents involved said nearly 200 signatures had been collected on decertification cards by Friday morning and that about half the union would ultimately be involved.

It was a stunningly swift show of solidarity in barely 48 hours of the agent-driven signature drive, a potential death knell for the revised proposal Stern delivered Thursday night, complete with another ultimatum: Accept it, get ready for a 72-game season, or brace yourselves for the hellfire to come.

"This isn't gonna fly," one of the formerly moderate agents said Friday, "even if I told my guys to vote for it."

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Vote, schmote, said the angry agents -- many of whom believed Friday that the revised proposal was even worse than the previous one and not even worth sending to the membership for a yay or nay.

Is it a good deal for the players? In no way, shape or form. Hunter admitted that Thursday night, saying, "It's not the greatest deal in the world." Deputy commissioner Adam Silver, in a rare departure from his deceptive portrayal of the league's supposedly benevolent goals, called the offer "a difficult pill to swallow."

Who's right? And what do the players do? Before we get to that, there are only two things that are clear: 1) the players are angry, and 2) the deal offered to the players Thursday night is decidedly not worse than the one given to them earlier in the week. It's bad for the players, and much better for the owners than the last CBA in every way, but it isn't worse than the most recent offer.

As explained here on CBSSports.com, based on details of the obtained proposal, the league made a handful of moves toward the players in the hopes of finalizing an agreement in time to save Christmas games, preserve an on-time All-Star weekend and ensure that the players would only miss one paycheck as a result of the 4 ½ month lockout. It wasn't enough for Hunter and Fisher to shake hands on the deal Thursday night, but it was enough for them to hold a rhetoric-free news conference and say the executive committee agreed that the proposal warranted discussing with the player reps in advance of a possible vote.

So why all the anger? Some of it was always inevitable. What was puzzling was the sudden galvanizing of agents who'd previously wanted no part of each other during this fight. And that was a function of two things: 1) the league's quite risky gamble that it could win on 100 percent of the economics without bending significantly on the system points, and 2) presentation.

As I know all too well, fumbling my question away on live TV during the union news conference Thursday night, it's difficult to present well after 12 hours locked in a room inhaling the stale, pungent aroma of listeria-infested chili dogs and mutant pizza. But both sides made a grave error in the way this proposal was presented.

Instead of portraying this as another owner-driven proposal, with an ultimatum to accept it or get slapped with a far worse one, it should've been described as the product of both sides' work and the best both sides could do. Players are tired of hearing Stern deliver ultimatums. They're tired of being backed into a corner, tired of having Stern say duplicitously that he won't negotiate in the media -- except for all the times he's negotiated in the media.

If anybody knows that it's cool to be good at what you do, but that flaunting it just makes you come across as an arrogant show-off, it's professional athletes in general and basketball players in particular.

No one, including myself, has ever asked Stern the specific reason that a rejection of the current proposal would instantly necessitate worsening the offer from a 50-50 split with a soft cap to an owner-friendy 53-47 split with a hard cap and salary rollbacks. I've spoken with these people enough to know what their phony answer would be: To account for the worsening economic condition our owners are experiencing by virtue of missing more games.

I may be forgetful, but I'm not dumb. By arbitrarily replacing a bad proposal with an infinitely worse one, you would be ensuring your owners more economic losses. And if it were true that they were losing so much money, they should be happy to lose more games. So that argument doesn't fly any more than I do. Don't let them get away with it.

So one way to avoid half the players in the league immediately turning on this proposal without even knowing what was in it would've been to stop showing everyone what a great negotiator and famous bully you are. A little more humility and a lot less gun-to-the-head, gotcha-moment cornering of the very people who make the money for these owners would've gone a long way.

Another way to avoid the potential blowing to the sky of the negotiations, and with them, the 2011-12 season? Stop trying to run the table. Take your $3 billion victory, allow the Lakers to sign a $5 million backup point guard, let the Knicks sign-and-trade themselves into oblivion, and call it a day. The players have been standing at your doorstep, hat in hand for days, just waiting -- practically begging -- for a few crumbs they can bring to the union membership and say, "Hey, we got you this," and, "We stopped them from taking that."

Instead, the league added $500,000 to the mid-level exception for taxpayers, tossed another mini-me exception into the pile, and expected the players to be racing to the ballot box to vote, "Yes," before the weekend was out.

If this is, indeed, the best the league and the union can do, it should've been presented in a way that didn't turn the players against it from the jump.

And yet there was Stern again Friday night, in a nationally televised interview with broadcast partner ESPN -- complicit in forcing this deal on the players whether it knows it or not -- pinning the blame for a lost season on the players if they don't accept his owners' offer.

"It's all in the hands of the players," Stern said.

No, it's not. If Stern delivered an offer the players cannot accept, in an offensive manner that turned them against it before they even read it, then that part is on the commissioner and his hard-line owners -- some of whom are just hoping this thing blows up so they can see their 47-percent proposal on the scroll of the league's broadcast partner. If hard-line agents are mobilizing to torpedo this deal, whatever it is, without seriously walking through the alternatives, then shame on them, too.

Which brings us to what the players should do. Vote? Not vote? Approve? Disapprove? Unlike some who try to join Stern in backing the players into a corner and framing them for a possibly lost season, I won't tell them what to do. It's their business; not mine. It's their careers, their futures, their decision. Has nothing to do with me.

I won't hesitate to agree with how unappealing their options are, or how risky and probably unfulfilling the decertification/anti-trust route will prove to be. If the players decide to throw this hot potato back to Stern in the form of a counterproposal, I'll say they were smart to do so. Put the detonation button in his hands. Don't allow a fake negotiating threat to dictate your actions.

If they send it to the union for a vote? Great. If they conclude that this is the best offer they're ever going to see? Fine. If they say no way? That's fine, too. Just don't forget who drove this bus to the edge of this cliff, spewing ultimatums at every turn.

Don't forget who won this negotiation in a landslide this week, but weren't happy until they got a monsoon and hurricane to go with it. There's such a thing as being careful what you wish for because you might just get it.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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