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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Hush-hush labor meeting means there might be progress

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What does it say when Derek Fisher doesn't say much? Optimism for a resolution. (AP)  
What does it say when Derek Fisher doesn't say much? Optimism for a resolution. (AP)  

NEW YORK -- A month from now, when the NBA either will be killing a portion of the 2011-12 season or basking in the glow of training camps, we'll be able to look back on Sept. 7 as a significant date one way or another.

Either the strange, secretive vibe that permeated the lobby of a midtown hotel -- another new venue for the talks, not divulged to reporters -- was created to camouflage progress or was little more than a false positive on the litmus test for hope.

Since I'm on record -- and in the minority -- predicting that the lockout would be resolved without collateral damage to the regular-season schedule, I offer the reasons to interpret Wednesday's strange bargaining session as hopeful. And maybe even very much so.

  Both league officials and those from the National Basketball Players Association expressed surprise that reporters were able to determine the location of the high-level bargaining session, which the parties had vowed not to divulge. To my personal knowledge, neither did. The reason for the secrecy? Both sides believe public rhetoric could be damaging to the bargaining work that is beginning to progress, if by no other evidence than the fact that the league and players will meet again Thursday -- the first back-to-back sessions of the lockout -- and possibly Friday, too. For there to be concern about damaging the process, there would have to be something worth damaging. As to the assembled scribes' ability to sniff out the one hotel among hundreds and hundreds on the island of Manhattan where the meeting was taking place ... well, what do they think we do?

  Among the small circle of figures speaking publicly on the talks, all have adopted the talking point first espoused by commissioner David Stern back in June -- that nothing has been agreed on until everything has been agreed on. To the optimistic mind, this would suggest that some things have been agreed on and nobody's saying so. When queried on whether the Aug. 31 meeting and this week's sudden flurry of talks indicate momentum, NBPA president Derek Fisher admitted, "I guess that would be a fair assumption. But like I said, until we get this deal done, it's tough to try to characterize it or put a read on what means what in terms of on a daily basis."

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Until we get this deal done? That shift away from emphasizing the distance between the parties and the efforts to "get this deal done" would seem to indicate that there is a deal to get done. Fisher, whose speech patterns are at once precise and difficult to interpret, also spoke of getting the deal done as though it were a matter of when, not if.

"For our players and for the team owners -- and probably most importantly out of respect for the people that support our game, our fans -- it's just not appropriate to continue to discuss things openly and publicly based on specific deal points," Fisher said. "It really is best to keep those things internal. That's what these meetings are for. That's why we've all been either voted or chosen to be in the positions we're in and those discussions should stay in that forum. And once the deal is done, of course the specifics will come out. We'll all know what the agreement is and then we'll build from there. But from this point forward, it's really important to focus on just the deal and not the semantics and the rhetoric."

  Unless, of course, you're sending a direct message or text intended for a private audience to thousands of followers publicly on Twitter. This appears to have been what happened to Roger Mason of the Knicks, a member of the players' executive committee. Mason, who did not attend the bargaining session Wednesday, tweeted shortly thereafter, "Looking like a season. how u." After getting bombarded with inquiries about the tweet, Mason promptly deleted it and claimed his account had been hacked. Looking back a month from now, Mason either will go down as the latest public figure victimized by evil, indiscriminate Twitter hackers, or the one who broke the story that the lockout was all but over. How u? We'll see.

  New parties were on hand Wednesday whose presence could indicate a progression of the talks to nitty-gritty areas. On hand for the league was deputy general counsel Dan Rube, the league office's foremost expert on salary cap mechanics and player contracts. Could his presence have indicated an emphasis on specific system issues the owners and players are trying to resolve? Stern brushed off the notion of reading any such thing into Rube's appearance, but his role in the process is what it is. For the union, rejoining the talks were outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler -- who played the role of Mariano Rivera in closing the deal for the NFL and its players union -- and economist Kevin Murphy, whose input would be needed to decipher predictions of revenue growth in the out years of a new CBA.

  Finally, take the dry, terse and yet playfully jovial demeanor of Stern, who did nearly all the talking for the league Wednesday and said the least of anyone. It was Stern who first dropped the talking point about there being no deal on anything until there was a deal on everything, and on Wednesday, he seemed to wear that credo and his self-imposed muzzle with pride.

"I've agreed to neither portray optimism nor pessimism, just to tell you I can't say anything," Stern said. "And that's what I'm doing. ... We know we have a real problem to solve and there's nothing personal about it. It's going to be about problem solving. If we can, we can. If we can't, we can't. But we've agreed not to talk about it."

Stern did publicly disclose for the first time a deadline for when a deal needs to be achieved to avoid canceling training camps and preseason games: Sept. 28, if you take Stern at his carefully crafted, lawyerly word.

"We have three weeks," he said, when asked if there was enough time to reach an agreement before such collateral damage. Training camps are scheduled to open the first week of October.

"Time is running down, not necessarily out," Fisher said. "But I think we all know in the room that if we continue to work at it, we can possibly find a way to get a deal done."

Reason for optimism or a false positive on the litmus test of hope? We're still weeks away from knowing. Neither Stern nor Hunter, who've ridden in this rodeo before, was willing to say how far down the road to compromise they were. And indeed, no one knows better than they do that it's too early to make predictions either way.

But if nothing else, the talks to save the NBA season have left rhetoric and animosity in the past and focused on the compromise that both sides know must come eventually -- with the damage all depending on the timing.

"That's why we're here," Fisher said. "That's what we have to get to. That's the process we're committed to. We won't see that until the deal is done."


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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