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Season takes another hit as owners, players refuse to close deal

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Adam Silver arrives for Friday's negotiations, which were expected to see significant progress. (Getty Images)  
Adam Silver arrives for Friday's negotiations, which were expected to see significant progress. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- Here we are at the next foolish, scripted blowup of the NBA labor talks. See you in a few days, in the next hotel lobby taken over by grumpy, disaffected reporters and various other characters of questionable moral fiber.

Just when this was starting to get fun, just when it was starting to get done, we all got snookered.

That was the word Billy Hunter used Friday after negotiations to end the 120-day lockout went kablooey for the second time in a week and third time this month. That was what Hunter said David Stern did to him when the commissioner said Thursday night he was going into Friday's seemingly promising bargaining session "ready to negotiate everything."

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Only he wasn't. Neither was Hunter. The two men who were supposed to be in position to finally close this deal did not have the authority to do so.

That's the only logical explanation when failing to get a deal this weekend results in approximately $800 million of economic carnage -- the total cost to both sides of a month of lost games -- when the distance between the two sides is $80 million.

"Absurdity," one person on the management side of the NBA business said Friday night.

Oh, no. It's worse than that. Altogether now: It's ass-hattery.

But you knew that already.

I'd brought two bananas to Friday's bargaining session -- mostly for sustenance during these mentally debilitating hours spent waiting for grown men to finish staring at each other, but also as props. You may recall the banana-in-the-tailpipe column in which I detailed the blowout victory the owners were seeking in these negotiations. On Friday, we all fell for the banana in the tailpipe again. And we didn't even have a late supper -- shrimp salad sandwiches, say -- to show for it.

On top of that, I left my grocery bag with the bananas in the lobby, and by the time the predictable, double-talk-laden news conferences were over, two perfectly good bananas were gone. The latest casualties of the dumbest lockout ever.

My prediction, if you still want to hear it, is that there will be conversations over the weekend and another meeting next week to take another stab at this. There's too much to lose; too much at stake. That's what happened the last time things blew up, sending federal mediator George Cohen running for cover. That's what will happen again. More than enough of the deal has been negotiated already so that the next meeting really only requires two people: Stern and Hunter.

But those two people must have the authority to close the deal. On Friday, neither had it.

That's the only way it could possibly make sense to squander a chance to recoup two weeks of canceled games (worth about $400 million to the owners and players) and lose two weeks more (for a total of $800 million) by refusing to even attempt to close a two-point gap in basketball-related income (BRI).

Think of it another way: If Hunter had been willing to move from 52.5 percent to 51 percent Friday, that would've been a $60 million concession in Year One of the deal to get back the lost games worth $400 million -- a net gain of $340 million. Instead, the players decided it was better to lose the games, and thus $400 million, which made it a $740 million decision to walk out of the room without a deal.

If Stern had been willing to move from 50 percent and meet Hunter at 51, it would've been a $40 million concession for the owners to get their approximately $400 million share of the lost November games -- a net gain of $360 million. But instead of offering to make the economic move Stern had said Thursday night he was prepared to make, he decided it was better to lose the $400 million -- a net swing of $760 million. So collectively, Hunter and Stern cost their business $1.5 billion by walking away without a deal Friday.

Swell!

There is no rational way to explain this behavior, so there has to be something wrong. And the only answer is that neither Stern nor Hunter had the authority to negotiate beyond his established position.

No wonder the NBA is in such sorry shape, losing $300 million a year and destroying the interest of people who might consider spending money on their product some day with every illogical decision they make.

It's easy to figure out who is giving Stern his marching orders; he works for the owners, many of whom are going for a bloodbath in this negotiation instead of a rational victory. Given the scope of the owners' initial demands, the players have won a couple of surprising "victories" by holding onto guaranteed contracts and a $5 million mid-level exception and beating back the owners' pursuit of a hard team salary cap. But every other aspect of the deal that's been negotiated to this point is in favor of the owners: minimally, a $1.3 billion reduction in salaries over six years, shorter contracts, smaller raises, a more punitive luxury tax, and on and on.

But Stern has done what I warned him not to do. A lawyer by trade, he failed to see the sure victory of a plea bargain in his midst and stubbornly -- presumably not of his own free will -- decided to take this one to the jury, where everybody loses.

The one thing Stern remains empowered to do is own the spin game, and he did that masterfully again Friday by pinning the blame on Hunter for walking out. And as with most spin, there was an element of truth to Stern's account. He and deputy commissioner Adam Silver conveniently omitted the part when there was an opportunity -- both when Hunter was still in the room and after he left -- for Stern to communicate a willingness to make the economic move he'd said he was prepared to make. He didn't do it, he blamed Hunter, and he won the P.R. battle while failing to realize he's losing the war.

Even after letting Hunter leave the room, there was still more time for Stern to rein these negotiations back in.

After word first circulated that the talks had imploded again shortly after 4 p.m. ET, the two sides sat separately for at least 45 minutes before Hunter and union president Derek Fisher finally came downstairs to speak with reporters. Where did league negotiators think Hunter, a 69-year-old man with a bad back, was going so fast that they didn't have time to invite him back in the room to continue the talks? Were they under the mistaken impression they were negotiating against Usain Bolt, would've been halfway up the FDR Drive by the time Stern got out of his chair?

I asked Stern this: If Hunter hadn't left, would Stern have made the economic move he'd stated he was prepared to make? In his answer, he tried to say the league had moved Friday to 50 percent from 47 percent -- which the whole world knows hasn't been the owners' bargaining position since Oct. 4, when the talks last blew up over the BRI split.

Later, I asked Silver why the two sides wouldn't keep trying to close such a small gap, considering the mammoth losses that will result.

"I don't know," Silver said. "You're asking me. Billy said he would not go below 52 when he left. He didn't say, 'Do you want to split the difference?' He said, 'I will not go below 52.' "

"Did you say that?" I asked Silver.

"The negotiation ended when he said that," Silver said.

As in, they ended when the union's 69-year-old negotiator, you know, got up and Usain Bolted.

That was enough for me. Having already heard Silver say with a straight face that the good thing about this deal for the players would be that they'd make more money as revenues increased -- even though a 50-50 split would cut player salaries by $1.8 billion over six years -- it was time to use my brain for other purposes.

Which brings us to this: If Stern is getting his marching orders from the hard-line owners, who is preventing Hunter from being able to negotiate and close this deal? Who's cut his legs out from under him?

And Hunter himself provided the answer -- part of it publicly with the media and part of it privately in the negotiating room.

In explaining how the two sides got back to the bargaining table in the first place this week, Hunter said that after a staff meeting on Monday that "didn't go well at all," he was contacted by "third-party intermediaries who suggested that we get together." It wasn't clear who Hunter was referring to until Silver mentioned something the union's executive director had said in the meeting.

"Billy said, 'My phone is ringing off the hook from agents and from players telling me I cannot go under 52 percent,' " Silver said. "And he said, 'Unless you're prepared to go there, we have nothing to talk about.' "

So even at this late date, when they were on the cusp of a deal, each one's bus has been hijacked -- the way union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said the negotiations were hijacked a week ago. Stern is no longer driving for the league, and Hunter has been booted from the driver's seat by agents who -- justifiably or not -- believe the players already have given up too much in this negotiation and shouldn't give up another dime.

Yes, the two men who were supposedly empowered to make the deal everyone expected them to make Friday didn't have the juice to get it done. That's sad, silly, unfortunate, a disgrace -- and reality.

Until next time. Or until everybody goes bananas.


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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