NEW YORK -- It will be a busy day Wednesday in the NBA labor case, with another bargaining session featuring only the heaviest hitters and activity in the league's federal lawsuit against the players, as well.
In addition to the second meeting in as many weeks among the top negotiators for both sides, the judge in the NBA's federal lawsuit in the Southern District of New York has called a telephone conference for 5 p.m. Wednesday. U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe has ordered attorneys for both sides to join a conference call to discuss the scheduling of hearings, the basic positions on each side and the motion to dismiss the players' attorneys have informed the court they will be filing.
In short, it will be the busiest day of the lockout, now in its third month, since the NBA sued the National Basketball Players Association in federal court and also filed an unfair labor practices charge with the National Labor Relations Board on Aug. 2.
Progress? Maybe. The two sides at least have been able to agree on how to conduct the negotiations, even if they remain fairly entrenched in their positions. All precautions the league and players have agreed to -- limiting the number of people in the room for bargaining sessions, endeavoring to keep the timing and location of the talks secret and vowing not to publicly discuss what happens in the meetings -- have been steps that are conducive to constructive negotiations that actually could lead to a compromise.
The sessions that led to the July 1 lockout and the first two meetings thereafter were tinged with rhetoric and ill will -- distracting forces that have since been eliminated. As was the case the last time the two sides met, Wednesday's meeting will be limited to commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and Spurs owner Peter Holt representing the league side with union chief Billy Hunter, president Derek Fisher and lead counsel Ron Klempner appearing for the players.
As for the legal developments, the federal court conference is a mere formality, but a reminder to all involved on both sides that the case will move forward at an excruciatingly slow pace if they don't reach an agreement in time to avoid the cancellation of games. In the players' NLRB case, which remains the most expeditious path to legal leverage for either side, the investigation has concluded and both sides are awaiting a decision from the board. No one on either side is willing to hazard a guess as to when that will happen.
One thing both sides have agreed on from the beginning is that the only realistic resolution to this dispute will happen at the bargaining table, and so it should be taken with a reasonable amount of optimism that the only people with the power to make that happen will be staring across the table at each other again Wednesday for the second time in 14 days. It isn't insignificant at all.
Longtime NBA writer Chris Sheridan, who has left ESPN to launch his own site, has been more optimistic than most from the beginning. And Sheridan, national NBA writer for the Associated Press for a decade before spending the past six years at ESPN, launched the aforementioned site Tuesday with a carefully executed piece detailing why the two sides aren't as far apart as they've been letting on. In the newspaper-dominated days when Sheridan covered the 1998-99 lockout, there was no more challenging job in sports media than covering a competitive national news story for the AP, so he knows of what he speaks.
My take: Nothing has changed, per se, on either side. But what we're beginning to witness with the secretive meetings with only the big dogs invited is a demonstration that the league and players are meandering down the path they have been destined to travel for months. The loud, destructive voices have been banished from the negotiating room, the rhetoric has been toned down or eliminated and the time has come to "give peace a chance," as one source deeply involved in the talks put it.
The heating up of meaningful bargaining is in lock step with the timetable and various external forces I laid out for you here, when I predicted on July 1 that the league and players would agree on a new collective bargaining agreement in time to avoid missing any regular season games. It's worth reading back on that predicted timeline now, because Wednesday's bargaining session will occur one day before a very key date in my timeline: Sept. 8, opening night of the NFL season. The NFL owns the fall sports calendar no matter what, but there's great risk to the NBA and to the players if they give up whatever foothold both have worked so hard to achieve.
In the absence of any external legal pressure or leverage for either side, the calendar is beginning to do its job. That doesn't mean there will be a deal in the next six weeks and that a shortened or lost season will be averted. But it means that an environment conducive to actually negotiating finally has been achieved. And for those hoping to see the NBA on display in 2011-12, that is anything but a bad thing.