NEW YORK -- Flanked by some of the biggest stars in the game, players' association president Derek Fisher stood in a ballroom at a Park Avenue hotel Friday and declared that the willingness to reach a new collective bargaining agreement is there on both sides.
Next will have to come the movement, the tipping point that pushes the negotiations to the point of compromise. And that point did not come Friday, when stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen got to see for themselves what the owners are asking of them as they seek a system that gives all 30 teams an opportunity to compete and be profitable.
After some initial ugliness -- a person familiar with what happened in the negotiating room told CBSSports.com that some players were initially infuriated by how little the owners' stance has changed -- the bargaining session took on a tone of cooperation that signaled to some players that a deal was within reach.
UPDATE: But not before it appeared that Friday's bargaining session would be short-lived, and that there wouldn't be any more talking this weekend.
According to a person familiar with the negotiations, the owners and players met initially at about 2 p.m. ET and broke up to discuss the situation privately among themselves. The players, furious at seeing first hand the owners' offer of 46 percent of basketball-related income (BRI) -- down from their previous level of 57 percent -- were unanimous about what to do.
"Let's go," one of the players said, according to a source. "There's no reason to go back in there."
The players decided to return to the bargaining room with a much smaller group. Among those joining Fisher for the second session were James, Wade, Anthony, Kevin Durant, Baron Davis and committee member Chris Paul. None of the players joining Fisher sat down during this portion of the talks, a person with knowledge of the meetings said.
It was at this point that Wade took exception to commissioner David Stern's tone and gesturing -- the commissioner evidently was pointing his finger while speaking to the players -- and "stood up for himself," a person with knowledge of the meeting said. According to two people familiar with the incident, Wade warned Stern not to point his finger and made reference to not being a child.
Several versions of the quote were reported. According to a witness, Wade's tone was not threatening. But the upshot was clear: This was a potentially galvanizing moment for the players, who finally got the kind of star participation -- and leadership -- that they've lacked at key moments in these talks. In Wade, the players have found their Michael Jordan circa 1999, when the Bulls star famously told the late Wizards owner Abe Pollin to sell his team if he couldn't afford to run it.
After the confrontation, union chief Billy Hunter and Stern met privately, seeking a way to calm nerves and preserve the rest of the negotiations. Hunter, according to the person with knowledge of the talks, convinced the players to go back in -- selling them on the idea that the negotiating process had to be respected and telling them that the two sides would switch from the split of basketball-related income (BRI) to system issues.
It was after session that began at 6 p.m. and ran for about an hour that the two sides agreed to return to the bargaining table Saturday. The takeaway for the players, sources said, was the definite impression that the owners want to have a season.
"I don’t think it was a sense of now or never, but I think there was definitely a sense of, 'It’s time to stop throwing ideas around and let’s actually work towards making these ideas happen,'" said the Heat's Udonis Haslem, attending his first bargaining session. "I heard enough to really believe in my heart that both sides will work tirelessly to find a middle ground. I don’t know if that will happen."
Indeed, both sides tamped down expectations that a deal had to be achieved by the end of the weekend to prevent cancellation of some -- and perhaps all -- regular season games. Deputy commissioner Adam Silver said, "There are a lot of issues on the table," and questioned whether a deal could be consummated by Sunday strictly from the standpoint of "the number of hours in the day."
The rhetoric about the entire season being in jeopardy if a deal wasn't reached this weekend was "ludicrous," Stern said Friday -- just two days after pointing out that there would be "enormous consequences" from a lack of progress and that they "won't be a question of just starting the season on time."
The two sides will meet again Saturday morning with nearly the full committee of owners and multiple players on hand in addition to the NBPA's executive committee.
Joining the big stars with Fisher, Hunter, and several committee members in the union's post-meeting news conference were Davis, Elton Brand, Ben Gordon, Andre Iguodala, and others as Fisher challenged those who've questioned the involvement of the game's biggest names in the bargaining process.
"Some of our guys have been questioned in terms of their commitment to this process, to the players' association and to the game," Fisher said. "Their presence here today, we all know for picture’s sake says a lot. These guys have always been with us."
James, Wade and Anthony abruptly left the news conference without speaking with reporters, climbing together into an idling SUV waiting for them outside the hotel.
But their presence, without question, was felt in the bargaining room. According to two people involved in the talks, several owners who typically are the most boistrous in the meetings -- including Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and Suns owner Robert Sarver -- were noticably subdued. "Much tamer," said one of the sources. "They know it's time."
The owners were represented by nine of their 11 committee members, with Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban absent. Heat owner Micky Arison, facing the potential destruction of his Big Three (two of them being in the room), was the only owner not on the committee who attended.
The only progress described by anyone Friday (other than the fact that they'll meet again Saturday) was the state of the owners' revenue sharing plans. Stern revealed for the first time that the league is prepared to triple the current revenue sharing pool in the first two years and quadruple it starting in the third year.
But even that issue is clouded in big-market, small-market politics and the issue of when the high-revenue teams will begin to substantially increase their sharing. According to two people familiar with the owners' revenue sharing plans, the Lakers and Knicks would be called upon to pay the lion's share -- with the Lakers paying roughly $50 million and the Knicks $30 million -- into the new pool. But some big-market teams are increasingly reluctant to share their growing local TV revenues; the Lakers, for example, recently signed a 20-year, $3 billion deal with Time Warner that dwarfs some teams' total revenue.
Stern said Friday the players "know precisely" what the owners' revenue sharing plan will look like.
"They know as much as we know," Stern said. "We’ve told them about generally how it’s going to work. We haven't given them a piece of paper, but that will not be the issue that separates us."
So what happens now? After the cleansing process of stars voicing their opinions, threatening to walk out and calling out Stern in front of his owners, the time comes now for smaller groups, cooler heads and compromise. It is the only thing we know at this point about these talks: Both sides want a deal. Both sides want to play.
Both sides have room to move on the economics, too. The owners will quickly lose their appetite for certain non-negotiable system changes once they realize that addressing their losses is within reach. And the players will prove to be willing to negotiate on certain key system points -- such as a modest reduction in the mid-level exception and a more punitive tax system -- once they get the anticipated economic move from the owners.
The owners having witnessed the star players' resolve, and the players having witnessed the owners' willingness to make a deal, won't hurt. Because there will have to be a deal eventually, so why not soon? Why not now? Because, as one source offered, it would be "crazy not to."
And he might as well have been speaking for both sides.