|Commissioner David Stern often demurs in interviews, asking Adam Silver to respond instead. (Getty Images)|
The NBA labor talks have reached a tipping point. Which way they tip will have plenty to do with two men who are crucial to saving the season over the next week of expanded negotiations and ever-rising stakes.
They're just not the two men you may have in mind.
Ultimately, the buck will stop with David Stern and Billy Hunter, who've done this dance before and whose legacies are on the line. But just as the torch is being passed on the court -- from the likes of Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett to the younger generation led by Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin -- so, too, has there been a subtle yet important changing of the guard at the negotiating table.
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With the cadre of longtime owners loyal to Stern having dissipated -- replaced by the hard-charging Dan Gilberts and Robert Sarvers of the world -- Stern is a CEO whose past in the NBA is a lot longer than his future. His heir apparent, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, is the one who will be around for the majority of the new owners' tenure, and perhaps even the bulk of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Just as Stern has from time to time ceded the public spotlight to Silver, who also has taken a prominent role in the labor talks, the players have seen a clear leadership shift away from Hunter, for 15 years the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, to union president Derek Fisher.
While Hunter has taken heat from high-profile agents over his negotiating strategy, Fisher has stood front and center in nearly all of the union's public appearances during the lockout. The 37-year-old, 15-year NBA veteran also has commanded the respect of both sides in the bargaining sessions, which reached a critical juncture this past week with high-level meetings on consecutive days in New York.
An even more crucial phase begins next week, with the two sides bringing their full bargaining committees together Tuesday for a final push before meeting separately with their broader constituents -- the owners at the Board of Governors meeting in Dallas and the players in Las Vegas, both on Thursday. The days between now and then are without a doubt the most important in the NBA since the hours ticked away to salvage a shortened season during the 1998-99 lockout.
And the two men who will have the most important and difficult jobs are Silver and Fisher, who must try to instill the spirit of compromise in the people they serve -- the owners and players, who despite a more constructive tone remain billions of dollars apart, according to people with knowledge of the bargaining flurry that concluded Thursday.
According to five people who have been briefed on the negotiations, there has been no formal movement on the two topics that dominated the three sessions over the past two weeks: the split of revenues and the cap system. That could change Tuesday if the owners make a formal proposal, which would be the first in the negotiations since the players added a sixth year to their proposal on June 30.
"The reality is, until one side or the other is ready to make significant movement, nothing is going to happen," one of the people briefed on the talks said.
Depending on how such a proposal is received by the players' executive committee, the heaviest lifting of the lockout then would fall on Silver and Fisher, who are expected to be the two strongest voices in each side's job of selling its larger group on how to move forward from there. As has been the case since negotiations unofficially began in February 2009, the hardest job will be satisfying the conflicting agendas among each cadre of owners and players -- an unenviable task for which both Silver and Stern have been preparing for years.
No one should underestimate Stern's role in the closing of this deal, whether it's next week, next month, or next year. "At this point," said one person who has dealt with Stern personally over the years, "I've given up on counting him out. Sometimes I think he's never going to go away." But it has been clear since the early stages of negotiating this deal -- both publicly and at the bargaining table -- that Silver's role has increased exponentially, and with Stern's blessing.
Reporters covering the labor strife have become numbed to the many occasions when Stern, hit with a pointed question on the talks, defers to Silver with a sly, "Adam? How would you answer that?" But Silver's rise has been much more than an apprenticeship, and the bar exam of all bar exams could be upon him in the next seven days.
Silver, 49, has been with the NBA since 1992 -- breaking in as special assistant to the commissioner and serving in such roles as senior vice president and chief operating office as well as COO of NBA China and NBA Entertainment. His grooming for this moment, perhaps the most challenging and complex labor negotiation in league history, has been a long time coming.
His diverse background -- law clerk at U.S. District Court in New York City, undergraduate degree from Duke University, law degree from the University of Chicago -- pales in comparison to the experience gained at the University of Stern, where he has learned to be circumspect and demanding while sometimes losing patience with those who disagree. All the while, he has polished his undeniable talents as a shrewd, formidable negotiator.
"With Adam, I think David has been clear that he wants him to have a more prominent role," a person who has negotiated with both men said.
Silver's counterpart, Fisher, has arrived at this pivotal moment with the same meticulous approach that has personified his career. Since becoming president of the NBPA in 2006, after the previous CBA was ratified, Fisher has made a point of immersing himself in the business side of the sport and the dynamics of negotiating -- not unlike the way he pores over scouting reports to find an opponent's weakness.
The time and travel commitments have been substantial, yet Fisher is no stranger to cross-country trips or family strife. Autograph seekers in various New York hotel lobbies still ask how his daughter, Tatum, is doing. She's in remission after being treated for a cancerous tumor in her eye during the 2007 playoffs, when Fisher reluctantly left her bedside at a New York hospital and flew to Salt Lake City -- where his overtime 3-pointer led the Jazz to a victory over Golden State.
"Until this deal is done, I'm expecting to be in New York City quite a bit," Fisher said. "Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing in terms of my family commitments and travel and other things, it is what it is. A lot of families are depending on this time we're putting in. I signed up for the job and I'm going to continue to do it."
A five-time champion with the Lakers and one of the most celebrated clutch postseason shooters in NBA history, Fisher has been on both sides of the divide among the union's membership and has been adamant that he will never agree to a deal that robs from the mid-level players -- who have thrived under Hunter's stewardship -- to benefit well-heeled stars or even richer owners.
"Derek's been on all sides of it," one prominent agent said. "He's made big money and he's made little money. He's been around a long time. He's kind of the perfect guy to have the job that he has."
The job gets tougher now, tougher than preparing for that moment when the Lakers need another playoff buzzer beater and more complicated than co-existing with Kobe and Shaq. The task that Fisher and his formidable adversary, Silver, have been groomed so carefully for has entered the fourth quarter now -- with not a possession or a game on the line, but possibly the whole NBA season.
The average fan has never seen Silver in action in a moment like this, but they know what to expect from Fisher. With the outcome on the line and time running out, he usually makes the right play.