Senior Writer

Wake up: Massive legal war figures to prolong NBA lockout


NEW YORK -- When NBA owners and players got together Monday for their first full bargaining session since the lockout was imposed July 1, there was little reason for optimism. Neither side is feeling enough pressure yet to change its position, and so around and around we go until that day comes.

My colleague Gregg Doyel thinks that day is inevitable, and that it will come before any 2011-12 regular-season games are lost. I'm sorry to say that Gregg either hasn't been reading my lockout coverage, or he thinks it's all baloney.

It must be the latter, because evidently he had been reading my coverage; he linked to it in his column about how the NBA lockout is nothing more than a case of Chicken Little chortling about the sky falling. Doyel wrote that I "masterfully freaked out" with this piece last week about the gathering storm of NBA legal warfare.

I can't tell you who's right and who's wrong with any certainty, because I do not count a crystal ball among my possessions. I can only tell you what officials and executives from both sides of the negotiation tell me: They're dug in for the long haul.

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And I can only tell you that on Monday, we saw exactly what I told you in that freakout piece that we would see -- and more. We witnessed a Seinfeld negotiation -- a negotiation about nothing -- and we saw David Stern raising the pessimism meter another notch by making the serious accusation that the players are not bargaining in good faith.

In legal terms, them's fightin' words. And I have to warn Doyel that this is exactly what I said would happen. The sorry excuse for bargaining wasn't the story Monday. The story was the escalation of what is shaping up as a massive legal war.

Think it's all rhetoric? A person who has conversed often with NBA front offices this summer on what little business there is to be done besides the lockout said he has gotten the distinct impression that teams have already begun planning for the reality that some games will be lost.

"I think everybody would be shocked if we didn't lose games," the person said. "Coaches, management -- they all agree on that."

An NBA team official who admits the owners and players "can't even agree on what to order for lunch at this point" is nonetheless more optimistic. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because team officials are forbidden under threat of heavy fines to discuss the labor dispute, said a lot of the issues holding up a deal could be solved in a single day. A credible deal everyone could agree on would take, at most, three meetings, he said.

"Fifty-four percent actually is not that far away from 50," the person said, referring to the bad-faith-bargaining players' proposal to reduce their share of basketball-related income from 57 percent to 54.3 percent in the first year of a six-year proposal. "I would think the owners would take 50 and run."

The problem is getting everyone to the point where each side believes it's time to stop posturing and time to compromise. Those conditions did not exist on July 1, they did not exist on Aug. 1, and chances are they won't exist on Sept. 1, either. This official does not believe, like some observers, that the entire season will be lost. But even from an optimistic voice, a person in the minority view that the two sides will eventually settle their differences before the Armageddon of a lost season, there is difficulty imagining how that would happen without at least the 2011 portion of the '11-12 season going down the drain.

"I do see us missing some games," the executive said. "If you don't have some movement by mid-September, training camps open at the end of September. And if you don't start camps on time, there's no way you're going to get all the games in on time."

Given that the NFL lockout mercifully ended last week, there is a tendency to see compromise and equanimity in that sport and assume the same can be achieved in the NBA. This couldn't be further from the truth. The NFL owners were making a lot of money, and were seeking to make more. That is a much easier starting point from which to negotiate.

David Stern's 'bad-faith' accusations and hostile tone aren't likely to cool the lockout rhetoric. (Getty Images)  
David Stern's 'bad-faith' accusations and hostile tone aren't likely to cool the lockout rhetoric. (Getty Images)  
Ordinarily, I would agree with Doyel that cooler heads will prevail as we get closer to the deadline -- Oct. 15 in my estimation -- by which regular-season games will be canceled. But these are not ordinary times; this is not an ordinary work stoppage. New owners who've paid enormous sums to buy into the NBA since the last game-killing lockout are driving the league straight into the abyss. Dan Gilbert, Robert Sarver, Mark Cuban, Ted Leonsis and the like want what they want: utter domination in this labor negotiation. Even those who've bought in recently -- Joe Lacob, Tom Gores, and now the proposed Sixers group led by Joshua Harris, whoever that is -- did so with the understanding that there would be unequivocal labor victory at the end of the rainbow.

Now, owners who somehow find the nerve to trot Stern out to trumpet their magnanimous "move" off their initial proposal of a 34 percent pay cut and other draconian measures are accusing the players of failing to bargain in good faith. Yes, the same players who've been faced with an inflexible, take-it-or-leave-it posture from the owners for 18 months now have been accused of subterfuge. Next, Gilbert will be accused of subtlety -- in a National Humor Relations Board complaint typed in comic sans.

I'll say this for the idea that the owners and players suddenly will find common ground on the eve of the deadline to cancel games: That's how it should happen. And some believe if the two sides would take a break from giving each other mental middle fingers long enough to see what's in front of them, they would see that the issues are not that hard to solve. For the love of Theo Ratliff, it only took me a few weeks and four stories to fix all of it -- and I got rid of two unnecessary teams in the process, something NBA officials admit won't be explored until after a new labor deal is signed.

But there is something else -- something more tangible than the faraway notion of an NLRB complaint and federal injunction -- that could stop this lockout in its tracks. It's called an awakening by the owners who are not driving the NBA down the path of pointless non-bargaining. The best hope for salvaging the full season will come from owners who stand to lose by shutting down the league.

"There will be a tipping point where owners will start turning on owners," the team executive said. "I don't know if they're as solid as the players are. Some of those new owners think they have a lot of new solutions, but a lot of them are not invested in the league the way some of the other owners are. I don't know if Jerry Buss or Robert Sarver will ever see eye to eye on anything."

You see, it isn't a big deal to Donald Sterling if there's no 2011-12 season. It's a huge deal to Buss -- and to James Dolan, Jerry Reinsdorf, Micky Arison and to a degree, Peter Holt, the chairman of the owners' labor relations committee. At some point, will the economic reality of nuking $4 billion in revenues in a rapidly (again) deteriorating economy make Wyc Grousbeck stop acting like the Celtics play in Little Rock?

"How long can they hold the internal line before someone says, 'You guys don't have any solutions and you're doing all the yapping'?" the executive said.

Circle Oct. 1 on your calendar. By then, one of two things will have happened: Either the players will have earned a victory with the NLRB along with an injunction from a federal court lifting to lockout, or the few owners who don't really want this mess -- along with others who simply want more revenue sharing instead of a lost season -- will have come out of the woodwork. If you see the aforementioned legal developments by Oct. 1, or if you see Reinsdorf, Arison, etc., showing up at the bargaining sessions, then Doyel will be right: the defending champion Mavs will be hosting the Bulls on Nov. 1, just like the fictitious NBA schedule says.

If not, I refer you to words that came out of Stern's mouth on June 30, hours before the lockout was imposed: "As we get deeper into it, these things have the capacity to take on a life of their own."

Do they ever.

Before joining, 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

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