NEW YORK -- A few minutes before 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, a man with a rumpled suit and a black leather briefcase strode through the lobby of Olympic Tower. In a minute, he was out on 52nd Street, perhaps believing what he'd told reporters earlier was true.
"We did not have a good day," David Stern had said.
|On the union side, Derek Fisher (left) and Billy Hunter say half a season may be lost. (AP)|
The NBA and its players' union had met for five hours in a bargaining session that was tinged with too much hope, mistaken for something other than what it was: a test of each side's will, of how much season and money they were willing to lose in this negotiation over the future of professional basketball in the United States.
To say it was a bad day ... well, given that there is still no collective bargaining agreement and the threat of canceling games looms ever closer on the horizon, this was how the 60-second news cycle needed to package it. There was no way to lipstick this pig, it seemed.
But if you were Stern at 6 p.m. Tuesday, knowing you had all but achieved half of the ambitious goal set forth by the 30 men you work for, how bad could that be?
The only thing both sides agreed on after this latest round of posturing and semi-negotiating was that the players had come to the table with economic concessions the owners and NBA negotiators could live with -- or at least could envision writing into a new CBA. Though no written proposals were formally exchanged, hidden amid all the rhetoric and doomsday prognosticating was something extraordinary for how lost it became: the NBA and its union are on the verge of solving the biggest dispute between them, as in how much money each side gets.
It was still happy hour when Stern strolled out of the NBA offices, so someone should have been raising a glass for a toast.
Neither side would say how far the players moved economically, but a person with knowledge of the negotiations said they expressed a willingness to move lower than the 54.3 percent of basketball-related income they last proposed on June 30 as a starting point in a six-year deal. Stern disputed the players' contention that the owners haven't made an economic move since the day before the lockout was imposed. Nobody outside the room knows how many millions the two sides shaved off the gap, but it hardly matters since everyone seemed willing to concede that they've at least dipped their toes on common ground when it comes to dollars.
"I'd just say it's on the road, and we know how to negotiate over dollars when the time comes," Stern said.
Adam Silver, the deputy commissioner, said, "We said we went into this process with two goals: one was an economic goal, which we've addressed."
So what's the problem? It isn't the economy, stupid. It's the system. And the two sides' positions on that are as far apart as their rhetoric.
The league's indignation over the players' refusal to accept a hard salary cap can be summed up like this: The union offered to make an economic move, but only if the owners would agree in advance to keep most of the current system -- with its soft cap, luxury tax and various exceptions -- in place.
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"It actually didn't make sense for us to respond to their non-negotiable demand that everything remain the same that it was," Stern said.
The players' astonishment at the owners' ongoing demands can be summed up like this: The owners want significant salary concessions, which they're on the verge of receiving, and they want a more restrictive cap system to go with it. They can't have both, say the players. It's straight out of the cake-and-eat-it-too negotiating handbook.
"We don't want a system where players come in, they have no security and you have two or three marquee players who get a guarantee -- and not a full guarantee as they have proposed, but a limited guarantee -- that everybody else would not have," Hunter said. "And these guys would be on one- or two-year deals and at any whim of any given owner or GM or whatever, they'd be out the door. And so we're saying, 'No way.'"
Though Stern ridiculed the players' refusal to accept a hard cap, calling it "an emotional attachment," neither side can hide behind the fact that the half of the problem that isn't about the money, well, it's also about the money.
Silver eloquently explained how a hard cap would enhance competitive balance and instill parity -- as it has in the NFL and NHL -- but conveniently glossed over the fact that revenue sharing is the appropriate tool for those problems. Hunter again called a hard cap "a blood issue," to which Silver replied, "That makes the point. You don't hear us using words like 'blood issue' and 'non-negotiable.'"
So as you can see, the stuff about toned-down rhetoric and seeking compromise instead of negotiating victories or public opinion points? Out the window.
"And frankly, we don't understand why an individual team hard cap should be a blood issue when a macro hard cap, at 57 percent, which is what we have now, is not," Silver said. "And our view is that how the money is distributed among the teams and among the players is a fair topic of negotiation. And it shouldn't be the case that they're coming in to tell us that if they are willing to make economic concessions, we should be forced to accept, as is, the existing system, which from our standpoint does not work."
Thus, the doomsday predictions from Hunter and Fisher that the season probably won't be starting on time. The calendar marches on, with each side retreating to its neutral corner -- the players in Las Vegas and the owners in Dallas for separate meetings on Thursday -- facing the very real possibility of losing regular season games.
"And we've actually prepared [the players], saying that they may have to sit out as much as half of the season before we get a deal done," Hunter said.
Half a season over half the fight? I guess that sounds about right. But now, with roughly a month before the memo goes out from the league office that the first two weeks of the regular season are canceled, this bloody fight over money and how it's divided up returns to its roots.
It reverts inward, for each side to do some soul-searching.
Are the owners, having essentially received the economic concessions they were seeking, really willing to sacrifice $4 billion of revenues (roughly half of which they'd get, depending on how the deal ultimately is written) in order to impose a hard cap that may or may not allow Charlotte Bobcats to make the conference semifinals?
Are the players, having fought back the owners' quest for what Hunter called Tuesday "total capitulation," willing to cut off paychecks for more than 400 players for a year so that Corey Maggette can make more money than he deserves until his contract finally can be dumped into a voodoo-math NBA trade at some future deadline?
If two parties had agreed on the terms of a divorce, are they going to hold up the alimony payments over how much goes in each installment or how it can and can't be spent?
This is where we are: at the heart of the blood issue for both sides. Hunter articulates it more than the owners and the league, but that's what it is to both. The only question is how much blood.