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For hardliners on both sides, 96 hours left to save NBA season


Adam Silver (left) and David Stern face continual public scrutiny over the lockout and its effects. (Getty Images)  
Adam Silver (left) and David Stern face continual public scrutiny over the lockout and its effects. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- Before the 2011-12 NBA season gets flushed down the toilet in a fit of rage, stubbornness and emotion, imagine something for a moment.

Imagine if Jeffrey Kessler had said nothing after the latest middle-of-the-night breakdown in NBA talks. And imagine if, instead of saying what he did, Derek Fisher had said this:

"We're frustrated that the NBA owners still do not want to meet us in the middle and shake our hands on a deal that will ensure that thousands of people keep their jobs. We're disappointed that instead of continuing to negotiate, the owners have given us an ultimatum and told us they will effectively end negotiations Wednesday if we do not accept their terms.

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"But we are too close to give up now. We have come too far and there's too much at stake and too many people's jobs at risk. We as players are taking the high road. We say no to the NBA's proposal to end negotiations when we are so close to finishing this deal. We are not going to play Russian roulette with the emotion and livelihood of our fans and workers who support our game.

"So we invite the owners to continue to negotiate with us all the way up to the artificial Wednesday deadline the commissioner imposed. We are prepared to finish this deal at any time, in any place, for as long as it takes. We hope the owners and the league accept our invitation, because if they do not, their actions will speak louder than any words we can say about their intentions of negotiating a fair deal and saving the season."

See? What a difference. Instead of allowing spin master David Stern to pile the blame onto the players' laps, the players could've lobbed it right back -- schmack at him. And then the owners who are unwilling to give Stern the authority to extend the olive branch needed to close the deal would've been called to account for needlessly blowing up an entire basketball season simply to prove a point.

But what happened instead? The players and union officials took the bait Stern had so cleverly planted on the end of a hook early Sunday. Instead, a defeated Fisher acknowledged the inevitable and Kessler, the union's flame-throwing attorney, served a pile of red meat for the hardline agents and star players who are fed up with this charade to devour on their path to the mutually assured destruction of union decertification.

And if the season gets blown up in the aftermath of these ultimatums, threats and tantrums, it will be the players' doing.

This didn't have to be. And it still doesn't.

Beginning Monday morning, there are three full business days for someone -- anyone -- with a shred of reason to pick up the phone and connect the dots between the differences that remain. Anybody can see it: After 2½ years of cutthroat negotiations, a 20 percentage point economic difference between the two sides has been shaved to 1 percent -- $40 million in the first year of a new CBA and $262 million over six years, a fraction of the $800 million that already has been squandered by sacrificing a mere month of games with this idiocy.

After months upon months of butting heads over a hard team salary cap, and then an NHL-style flex cap, and then an ultra-punitive luxury tax, there are essentially three issues that remain to be negotiated: sign-and-trades for luxury-tax-paying teams; the size, length and frequency of mid-level deals for tax payers; and the tax structure for teams that choose to pay a luxury tax for three out of any five seasons.

The last issue is especially maddening, considering the two sides are 50 cents apart on the first $10 million of spending over the tax threshold and -- get this -- have identical, $1-per-dollar-over proposals for those repeat offenders who spend beyond that $10 million tax threshold.

If I were a player reading all this, I'd be asking myself: What are we fighting over? Why am I going to give up a year of income -- for some players, 15-25 percent of their career earnings -- so that lawyers can raise their voices, spew venom, stomp their feet and play right into the owners' hands?

"We don't even know who Kessler is," one agent said Sunday. "We don't have any access to this guy whatsoever. Who is this guy? Now he's saying whether or not the deal is a fraud?"

And if I were a player, I'd be asking myself this, too: Who is leading us down this path? It surely isn't Fisher, who appeared on the verge of exhaustion and tears during his somber news conference Sunday morning and who, according to one person familiar with the union president's position, "Obviously wants to make a deal." But as clearly conveyed by his solo news conference appearance, he looks to be going it alone in that effort -- with little cooperation from his negotiating adversaries across the table or from some segments of the union leadership.

For agents and players across the country who watched Sunday morning's latest fiasco, it did not go unnoticed that at the moment when the union reduced its request to 51 percent of BRI -- below the 52 percent line in the sand drawn by hardline agents -- union chief Billy Hunter was nowhere to be found. An NBPA official said Hunter, who just turned 69 and has a debilitating back condition, was feeling ill. But where were Fisher's fellow executive committee members?

Where was superstar Chris Paul, who shows up at bargaining sessions when it's convenient and when he isn't busy dreaming of playing for the Knicks?

Why was Fisher, team player on the court, going solo at the most important moment of the labor talks?

"If 52 was the magic number, is he done?" one agent said of Hunter's absence. "Is that symbolic? That's what I thought: 'He's toast.' Everybody's saying the magic number is 52, and if it's under that, he'd be removed. So maybe he's been removed."

But whatever authority has been stripped from Hunter, the same can be said of Stern, who must know at this late date that a 50-50 deal is all he can get past a unified contingent of rogue, hardline owners who are pushing not for a deal, but for annihilation.

"The league has to give an olive branch," said a moderate agent who is not in the decertification camp. "But David Stern has to be in that room knowing it, and it has to kill him not to be able to give that little olive branch that, in the scheme of things, who cares?"

Just as in geopolitics, in the absence of power that results from a coup, the vacuum is filled by extremists.

"Honestly, I think [Stern] has lost control of this thing," said an agent who has long favored decertification. "There's no way in the world David Stern wants an NBA season blown up when the owners already have gotten as good a deal as he's gotten them."

That's where we are. But it doesn't have to be.

Even if 30 percent of the union membership delivered a signed petition to the National Labor Relations Board Monday morning seeking a decertification election, it wouldn't be worth the paper it's printed on. It would be utterly irrelevant as it relates to the far more important business at hand over the next 96 hours. Even forgetting that such a petition hardly guarantees that an election ever would be authorized; that an election, if authorized, wouldn't happen until January; and that half the players signing the petition wouldn't fully understand what they were getting themselves into, it's still irrelevant.

"Decertification is not an option," said another agent who opposes it. "From a timing standpoint, the season's done [if players decertify]. This is the stupidest threat I've ever heard of in my life. ... David Stern recognizes all of this. He's got them right where he wants them. That's why he gave them the ultimatum. He knows they can't decertify."

Said another agent: "The risk-reward of decertification just isn't worth it. For both sides."

What has to happen independent of that before the close of business Wednesday is far more important, and here it is:

 Federal mediator George Cohen must call both parties Monday and summon them to his Washington, D.C., office for around-the-clock talks aimed at exhausting every avenue for a deal before Stern's artificial deadline arrives. If either party declines, it must be prepared to explain to the public why. Regardless of any petition, any inflammatory speeches by Kessler or any sensationalized agendas of star players and their agents that drown out the priorities of the rank and file, the National Basketball Players Association is the only body currently authorized to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the NBA. Short of a disclaimer of interest on the part of union leadership, this is the case from now until Wednesday and beyond -- all the way to at least January, the time frame during which the season can still be saved.

 While Fisher, Hunter, union attorneys, players on the executive committee, Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver face public accountability for this fiasco, the owners pushing the hardline negotiating strategy hide behind the commissioner-imposed gag order designed to protect them. Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee and, according to multiple sources, among the hardest of hardline owners, has spoken publicly about the negotiations exactly once. If the owners continue to resist the final push of compromise that would finish the deal, this amnesty from accountability can no longer be tolerated.

Among the most intractable owners, according to sources -- Paul Allen, Dan Gilbert, Robert Sarver, Michael Heisley, Ted Leonsis, Mikhail Prokhorov (yes, him), and now we learn, Michael Jordan -- only Heisley has faced any kind of public backlash. The Grizzlies owner, who admitted last week he doesn't even know what's going on in the negotiations, has been the only one to face a potential challenge in the form of a possible lawsuit by the city of Memphis to recoup losses sustained by a prolonged lockout. Prokhorov, who according to sources is fine with a strategy that would blow up his mediocre team's last season in Newark, is lucky in that he doesn't really have a fan base to hold him accountable. But where are the city attorneys, district attorneys, attorneys general and editorial page writers in some of those other cities to ask who's going to refund taxpayer money that's funding empty basketball arenas during a canceled season?

"The owners who are saying this isn't enough, stop hiding behind David Stern and stand in front of your communities and say why," one agent said. "If I hear one more person say they feel bad for parking lot attendants, I'm going to be sick. Do something. The parking lot attendant doesn't feel better when you say that. Stand up and take responsibility."

If Jordan, the reported ringleader of the hardliners, took responsibility, it would be a first. His Don't-Care-Ness couldn't even muster the courage to speak more than a few words in the eight-hour bargaining session Saturday, according to multiple people in the meeting.

"The reason you own an NBA team is because of what basketball has given to you," one of the agents said. "Just like you're allowed an opinion, I think the city of Charlotte is entitled to an explanation. One of greatest players of all time, who's made a fortune off the sport of basketball -- and now you're going to be responsible for destroying it?"

 While it's unlikely a groundswell among players could gain enough momentum by Wednesday to bring the owners' proposal to a ratification vote, players who aren't comfortable with decertification or want more information about what the league is offering should speak out -- publicly, by name and on the record. Until then, the opinions and priorities of rank-and-file players will continue to be drowned out by superstar tweets about decertifying. It's the irony of social media: while players have more opportunity than ever to have their voices heard, the filter weeds out the ordinary and amplifies the stars.

"Players are all across the board, but with one consistency -- they're all angry," one agent said. "They don't necessarily know if they should decertify or not decertify, but everyone's angry with this situation. It boils over. ... Rationality has totally left the building on both sides.

"The only rational solution at this stage is, 'Why aren't you still in a room talking?' " he said. "Why aren't you still with George Cohen and negotiating?"

That can still happen. Ninety-six hours to save the season. Ninety-six hours to save the NBA from the egos, foolishness and agendas that threaten to lead it down a dead end that only ends one way.

Badly for everyone.

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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