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After latest NBA impasse, good luck finding someone who cares

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Forgive Ken Berger (second from left) if he seems unenthused about any future negotiations. (Getty Images)  
Forgive Ken Berger (second from left) if he seems unenthused about any future negotiations. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- This is a circus now, the big tent setting up at posh locations all over the island of Manhattan with men in clown suits parading in and out at all hours of the day and night.

Wasting our time, we come to find out.

Except that the difference with this circus is that no one wants to see it anymore. Soon, the owners and players will be negotiating in a forest with no one around to hear them except each other. And after what happened Thursday, oh, do they deserve that.

They deserve each other.

Mediated talks to end the NBA lockout blew apart with such force Thursday night, even as millions of fans had been led to believe a solution was near, that you could hear the collective groans of the gullible all across the land. It would've been the most uproarious version of comedy if it weren't so sad and despicable.

Mediator George Cohen didn't run to the bar this time, he ran all the way back to Washington, D.C., leaving a terse statement behind like a vapor trail. Barely 24 hours after speaking of how committed the parties were to solving their problems, Cohen said, "No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."

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And you know what? I agree. The ultimate optimist, the one who has spent hours thinking about and writing about solutions, indulging fellow optimists involved in the talks who thought right up until Thursday that a deal was possible -- I'm done.

No more circus tickets for me. No more bearded ladies and men on stilts. No more clown shows, and no more spin. No more believing in reason and compromise.

No more Mr. Nice Guy.

What happened Thursday was irresponsible and gutless -- which shouldn't come as a surprise in sports, where the irresponsible and gutless go to make their millions (or billions) and play us for fools.

They take our money to finance their palaces, gouge us for pretzels, beer and parking, and laugh all the way to the country club. All they want, said labor relations committee chairman Peter Holt of the San Antonio Spurs, whose arena was built with $145 million in public funds, is the chance to "make a few bucks."

Do me a favor, Mr. Holt: Leave the condescending cowboy talk in Texas where it belongs.

When they pick up the phone in a day or two -- and they will, they always do -- they'll expect you to care that they're getting together to try this again. Don't. Don't get played again.

When the news release goes out announcing the canceling of another chunk of your games, they'll expect you to understand -- and come back when it's all over.

Do that at your own peril.

I'm mad at everybody right now, but do you know who I'm angrier at? The owners. Why? Because I believe Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher when they say it was an ultimatum from the owners that shattered these talks Thursday night. Let me explain why.

After 24½ hours of seemingly productive mediation over two days, strange things happened Thursday. The heavy lifting that had been progressing over the previous two days was over the system issues upon which a turning point in the talks seemingly hinged. This is what we had been told when all hell broke loose on 63rd Street outside the Lowell Hotel on Oct. 10 -- that it wasn't about the money anymore, it was about the system.

And you know what it's about in sports when they tell you it's not about the money? You guessed it: It's about the money.

In fact, I had told you the next day not to fall for the banana in the tailpipe -- that this mumbo-jumbo about the system was just something to distract everyone for a while until the discussions inevitably came back to the split of BRI. And sure enough, back-schmack they went on Thursday, with league negotiators drawing a line in the sand at a 50-50 split of BRI and trying to sell it as a new proposal.

"The response back from the union today was they made a slight move from 53 to 52.5 percent of BRI, and that's where we broke off," said deputy commissioner Adam Silver, filling in for commissioner David Stern, who was home with the flu. "They made it clear that if our position was that we were unwilling to move beyond 50 percent, there was nothing else to talk about, and that's when the discussions broke off today."

On this point, union president Fisher stepped to the microphone in an adjacent room a short time later and cold-bloodedly accused Silver of lying.

"I want to make it clear that you guys were lied to earlier," Fisher said. "It's that simple."

Was he lying? That's a strong word; spinning is more like it. But Fisher and Hunter said it was the owners who presented the ultimatum: 50-50, take it or leave it. Those words came out of Chris Paul's mouth during the players' news conference, and Hunter said they essentially came out of Holt's mouth -- and while I wasn't in the room to prove it, the message was clear.

There are hard-liners among the owners who refuse to give the players a dime more than 50 percent, and some harder-liners who were reluctant to go even that far. But you know what? There are hard-liners on the union side, too -- agents and super agents and clusters of seven agents who didn't want to go a dime below 53 percent. I know of at least one powerful agent who never thought the players should have offered anything below 57 percent -- the share they received under the previous six-year deal.

The difference? Fisher and Hunter have successfully excluded those hard-liners from the bargaining process, all the way up to Thursday, when sources told CBSSports.com that some agents were still working the phones and telling their clients to "hold firm" and reject any deal below 53 percent. Hunter and Fisher ignored them and offered to go lower on Thursday -- to 52.5 percent if revenues came in as projected and as low as 50 percent if they came in lower.

The league has not only been unable to keep hard-line owners from influencing the negotiations, they couldn't even keep them out of the room Thursday. The new participant was Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, who came as a messenger from the Board of Governors meetings that concluded earlier in the day, Hunter said.

"When Paul Allen came into the room, they alluded to Paul and said that Paul was there because the owners were of the position that they had given up too much in the negotiations and he was there to reaffirm their position," Hunter said.

Hunter said he made a speech to Allen, essentially asking him if the owners would table the BRI talk and try to finish tackling the system issues separately.

"Paul didn't respond," Hunter said. "He was just in the room."

The owners' BRI proposal had been the same as it was on Oct. 4, when talks broke down after an informal exchange involving star players Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce: a band of 49-51 percent for the players, depending on revenues. That night, the players countered with a band of 51-53 percent. This time, they came back with a band of 50-53 -- with the players getting as little as 50 percent if revenues came in under projections and no more than 53 if revenues grew more. The concept was the brainchild of union economist Kevin Murphy, according to a person familiar with the proposal.

"So here we are, we get here today and after some two-and-a-half days of negotiating ... they come in at the last minute and say, 'You've got an ultimatum. You can either accept 50-50, or it's off,' " Hunter said.

At the urging of Cohen, Hunter and Fisher went back into the room one more time to explain that the players couldn't agree to a BRI split without knowing what the system would be. It's sort of like asking the owners to commit to a revenue-sharing plan without knowing the overall economics -- something Silver said Thursday the owners couldn't do.

At this point, Hunter said Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert urged him to "trust his gut" that the system would be something the players could agree to.

"I said, 'No, I can't trust your gut,' " Hunter said. "I've got to trust my own gut."

The negotiations, for all practical purposes, were dead in their tracks.

Union attorney Jeffrey Kessler speculated that owners in the Board of Governors meetings Wednesday night and earlier Thursday had forced this take-it-or-leave it negotiating strategy on Silver, Holt and the rest of the labor relations committee. I don't have time for conspiracy theories at a time like this, although Kessler made a compelling -- if incendiary -- case, even implying that the strategy was somehow related to Stern's absence.

"This meeting was hijacked," Kessler said. "Something happened in that Board of Governors meeting. We were making progress. They came back, they came without the commissioner. They came with Paul Allen. We were told Paul Allen was here to express the views of the other members of the Board of Governors. And that view was, 'Our way or the highway.' That's what we were told. We were shocked. We went in there trying to negotiate, and they came in and they said, 'You either accept 50-50, or we're done, and we won't discuss anything else.' "

Now, let me say two things: 1) What happened Thursday night shouldn't be viewed as anything close to finality because of the simple fact that Stern was not in the room; and 2) there are still smart, well-meaning people involved in the negotiations who want to get a deal done and still believe it will happen.

A few more days of cooling off, write this off as another predictable if painful breakup, and move on.

But as for me, I'm out of optimism. I'm done analyzing payrolls and trying to fit economic concessions that would shift more than $1 billion to the owners over six years into the system changes they say they need to achieve competitive balance. If the owners don't want to try to blend those two crucial, inseparable, inexorably linked topics together at the bargaining table, why should I waste my time doing it?

"One goes to the total amount we pay the players and our ability to have a sustainable business," Silver said. "The other goes to a system in which all 30 teams can compete. And so we see them as completely unrelated."

If they want to set $800 million aflame -- the total carnage once the next two weeks of games are canceled -- over a $100 million annual difference in BRI, why should I try to stop them? Silver reminded me Thursday that $100 million a year is $1 billion over 10 years, which is true. But it's also true that the NBA and its players will lose 80 percent of that simply by canceling one month of games.

They have a name for this. It's called asshattery. Asshattery with a circus tent over it, and soon, no audience -- no one left who cares.


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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