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Amid unrest, union leaders' quandary: Who are they fighting for?


The signs of boredom, restlessness and capitulation already are beginning to show. One tweet at a time, one schism in the players association after another, we witness proof that the owners' strategy was going to work all along.

It's a shame, because you shouldn't be allowed to do what these billionaires are doing. You shouldn't be able to stomp your feet and get your way just because you can. You shouldn't be allowed to deny your employees paychecks so you can tilt the playing field even more in your favor. You shouldn't be able to do this just because you have all the money -- just because you've snookered citizens who mindlessly continue paying for your arenas even as they lock the doors to squeeze more money out of the employees because it isn't enough.

It's never enough.

Except the players have had enough of this lockout. They've had enough already, and even the owners would have to admit they're surprised it happened this fast. The players haven't even missed a paycheck yet, and already the capitulation has begun.

I can't blame them. I listen to deputy commissioner Adam Silver double-talk his way through a 30-minute news conference and I want to hand him the keys to my apartment and car just so I don't have to listen anymore.

So with the union leadership fractured and the players commencing a slow but steady drumbeat about how they want to stop fighting and play, this charade is almost over. This exercise in utter futility has almost reached its inevitable conclusion.

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Dear players: You lose. It was only a matter of by how much.

So it was, against this backdrop and the damage-control that has engulfed the union since reports surfaced over the weekend of a rift between executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher, that the NBPA's executive committee gathered Thursday at its Harlem office to strategize the next move. How both sides close up all the loose ends before the deal falls apart again will be fascinating, because the constituents with their axes to grind and agendas to promote are only getting started. They're going to be louder than ever before down at the end.

To be clear, when Glen Davis, who has not attended a single bargaining session to my knowledge, tweets to the NBPA, "Take the 51 percent, man, and let's play," it isn't obvious which man he's talking about. Is he urging Hunter to take a 51 percent share that the league hasn't offered? Or is he begging commissioner David Stern to find another percentage point of movement in his back pocket to close the deal? Either way, Davis' point is understood: Just end this so I can go back to work.

Davis is not alone. Terrence Williams of the Rockets tweeted Wednesday, "Let's play BALL. Enough with the stare off."

As the rank-and-file opinions and frustrations began to spill out, NBA veteran Nazr Mohammed took to Twitter to defend the union leadership and duel with an account newly created by the NBA's PR department to combat what it perceives as inaccurate reporting on the lockout. After some back-and-forth, Mohammed warned @NBA_Labor, "Don't tweet me during this lockout! Isn't that a fine or something lol!?!?!"

No, not a fine. Just another fight the players can't win.

But Mohammed, a savvy veteran and admitted beneficiary of the players' previous 57 percent share of BRI, made his strongest points when he urged his followers -- many of them fellow players -- not to "get too wrapped up in the BRI split cuz there are CBA system issues that can get us a deal done." And with that, Mohammed zeroed in on the real issue that will define whether a deal gets done in the coming days or weeks, or not. And it has nothing to do with sensationally spun conspiracy theories.

If Fisher in fact had private conversations with Silver and/or Stern about the fine points of closing the deal, it was not something worthy of criticism. Rather, it is Fisher's job as president of the union to explore every avenue to get a deal and get the people he represents back to work. Portraying Fisher as having gone rogue on the union for a 50-50 split is disingenuous at best and uninformed at worst. Anyone who has been paying attention knows the final BRI split and unresolved system issues represent a sliding scale. They are tied together, forever. Not all 50-50 deals are created equal.

Some give from the owners on the final, crucial system issues, like exceptions for tax-paying teams and the luxury-tax "cliff" for borderline taxpayers, could make the union leadership more comfortable with less than 52 percent of BRI. If the owners hold firm on the final few system items, they might find they have some BRI wiggle room to entice the players to come on board and end this. This isn't nefarious or conspiratorial. It's just how deals get done.

If hard-line agents ultimately prevent Hunter from accepting less than 52 percent regardless of the remaining system compromises, they too should be held accountable. But something has gotten lost in Hunter's intransigence over making further economic compromises, on top of the lengthy list of concessions he has already been forced to make: As the union director presiding over his second work stoppage to cost games, Hunter knew all along that the players would get antsy and their resolve would weaken. This is what lockouts are designed to do, and in the absence of intervention from the National Labor Relations Board or a federal judge, this is the reality Hunter was always going to face.

But if the entire season is lost?

"A lot of guys are on last year of their deals and they'll never, ever see that money again," one NBA team executive said. "And I'm not sure how many guys really understand that."

Even as players grow tired of the lockout and become wary of the paychecks they'll begin missing two weeks from now, part of Hunter's job is to show the backbone his constituents are losing. The players don't have billion-dollar balance sheets or franchises that have, in some cases, tripled in value. This is why they have union officials and lawyers representing them -- to resist capitulation long after the first hints of it begin circulating among the players.

As players begin recognizing the financial carnage that would result from a lost season, most of them can't be expected to consider the big picture -- how the deal will affect players who are currently rookies, players who have yet to be drafted, and indeed, players yet unborn. The instinct in basketball, and in sports, is for athletes with exceedingly small windows of earning potential to "get mine." Hunter and Fisher have taken an unofficial oath to see the wider horizon.

But while one of the key arguments against the players giving in now is that it would sell out future generations of players, here's the thing: In a country where we continue kicking our enormous can of debt and fiscal irresponsibility down the road forever, the future never is given more weight than the present. So Hunter and Fisher, having been empowered to protect both the short term and the long, will soon have a decision to make: Take the best deal they're ever going to get, or inflict maximum damage now and forever.

"It's admirable that they're fighting for the guys not in the league yet, but is it smart? That's the big question," another team executive told me recently. "They're fighting for Harrison Barnes. They're fighting for Austin Rivers. They're fighting for Andre Drummond. But the thing that they're missing is, why aren't they fighting for Willie Green right now? Why aren't they fighting for Brian Cardinal? Willie Green will never make up those two weeks. Brian Cardinal will never make up those two weeks they just lost. And at what point will these guys say, 'We've got to fight?'"

And sometimes, when the bullies have most of the money and all of the leverage, fighting means living to fight another day.

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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