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Houses divided could be biggest impediment to labor peace

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Thus far, Adam Silver and David Stern can't find common ground with the NBPA. (AP)  
Thus far, Adam Silver and David Stern can't find common ground with the NBPA. (AP)  

NEW YORK -- Players had arrived at a midtown Manhattan hotel cautiously hopeful that the time had come for deal-making, for David Stern to use his iron fist against his own.

They had strolled into a conference room and reiterated to the full complement of owners what top union officials had shared with Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver in three previous high-level meetings: They were willing to make another move on the split of dollars, but with a very important condition attached.

The system --- soft cap, guaranteed contracts, etc. -- had to remain intact. If not, no move on the money.

The players asked if this was up for discussion, or if they should simply leave the hotel and take with them the best chance to keep the 2011-12 season intact. Don't leave, Stern told them, according to a person present at the meeting. We'll be back.

An hour passed.

Then another.

And another.

For three hours, the owners caucused, which must be a very time-consuming process, whatever it is. What were 11 owners/executives and their appointed leaders, Stern and Silver, doing for three hours? Were Stern and Mark Cuban holding hands in prayer -- it was enough for a minyan, after all -- while James Dolan strummed his guitar? Were Dan Gilbert and Robert Sarver launching spitballs at Dr. Jerry Buss, a rare guest whose presence signaled just how important this meeting was?

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Or, more important, was there an honest disagreement among the owners about whether this offer of economic concessions should be turned away over some desire to experiment with competitive engineering? Was there a feeling in the room that, with a monetary victory within reach, trying to get even more -- a hard cap that would limit individual teams' spending and may or may not level the playing field -- would be akin to running up the score?

"As we say to the players, this is not about suppressing salaries," Stern said. "This is about distributing talent and salaries in a different way than we currently do, and that's what our proposals have been about."

But the fact that Stern volunteered, without being asked, that his labor relations committee was "not unanimous on every aspect" of how to respond to the players' ultimatum? Perhaps it was a sign things aren't copacetic on that side of the aisle.

"But all of the owners were completely unified in the view that we needed a system that, at the end of the day, allowed 30 teams to compete," Stern said.

For both sides, this is the key question as the labor talks limp forward. Who is unified and who isn't? Which side will splinter first?

The players' full executive committee (minus Chris Paul) waited impatiently with their legal staff Tuesday as the minutes and hours wasted away. Later, after the owners had returned and announced they had nothing to say in response to the players' latest offer, Hunter acknowledged the sinister forces at work among his own constituents: the saber-rattling for decertification led by high-powered agents who represent enough players to overrule Hunter and oust him from his job.

The nuclear option of decertification, which didn't work for the NFL players but now is being championed by some NBA agents, could result in three possible outcomes, all of which are bad for the players: 1) The legal messiness of it would virtually assure that most or all of the season would be lost; 2) When it's inevitably shot down in federal court, the players would have no choice but to accept a far worse deal than they're being offered now; or 3) Both.

But hey, sounds like a winning strategy.

Anywho, each side made a tactical negotiating mistake Tuesday, errors that are not beyond fixing if the dialogue can be sustained.

First, the owners: Knowing full well what kind of economic concessions the players were willing to make and being fully aware of the union's concerns about a hard-cap system, they should've come into the room with a proposal that addressed both. They wouldn't have presented anything the players were willing to accept, but it could have been a game-changer, or at least something to keep the talks moving.

And the players: With their ultimatum on the system as a precondition for their economic move, they made it too easy for the owners to say no. The owners have made their goals clear for two years, and weren't going to fully abandon one of them just for a shot at the other. No one should have expected the players to roll over and voluntarily cough up the two biggest aspects of these talks, but labeling the system as non-negotiable let the owners off the hook.

But this is all part of the negotiating dance, which eventually will lead to a warm embrace -- or at least, a cold handshake -- at the bargaining table, where this bloodbath ultimately will have to be resolved regardless of what legal tactic either side pulls out of its hat. Of far more importance than the back-and-forth between the sides is the strength of each one's resolve. And predictably, inevitably, we have reached the point when the fractures get exposed.

They will be laid bare Thursday, when the owners' full Board of Governors meets in Dallas and the players convene with mutiny afoot in Las Vegas, where literally dozens of live, paying customers are watching marginal, locked-out players play pickup games. If the owners' labor relations committee thought it had a lot to talk about with 11 members in the room Tuesday, wait until the whole gang is there. If Hunter was feeling the heat of a rogue decertification from afar, imagine the sweat under his collar with dozens of players in the room, their ears and brains having been filled with agent vitriol.

As long as Hunter is in power, his 15-year-history as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association says this about him: He will listen to his players. And if his president, Derek Fisher, can keep the cage-rattlers at bay, Hunter will not bend on the money and the system. It's one or the other; the owners can take their cap and eat it, too. Hunter won't capitulate now without a negotiating gesture from the league. Not without evidence that owners are willing to take responsibility for the aspects of competitive balance they can control through revenue sharing.

But with agreement on the dollars within reach, it seems incomprehensible that the season or a big chunk of it could be lost over how those dollars are distributed. The players want status quo, and the owners want Armageddon.

There's a useful discussion to be had somewhere in between, but first an even more important one to be had within each camp on Thursday. Where this goes next -- to the bargaining table or to a bonfire of the vanities -- will say as much about the divisions within each house as anything else.


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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