|On Nov. 25, 2011, otherwise known as Black Friday, the NBA averted a lockout crisis. (Getty Images)|
ORLANDO, Fla. -- On the eve of the All-Star Game, Billy Hunter and David Stern were in front of the microphones again, standing in front of their respective backdrops at separate events on a weekend that most people understand was close to never happening.
The story of how close has never really been told.
For Stern, it was his annual All-Star media address Saturday night, his most high-profile public appearance since the lockout ended. Earlier in the day, a few miles outside the city, Hunter was flanked by several of the players who served on the executive committee during the lockout. He stood in front of a National Basketball Players Association banner at a food drive where the union teamed with Feed the Children and city officials to provide free meals to more than 3,000 families.
All of this happened three months to the day after the last-ditch bargaining session that finally ended the lockout. Looking back on the night when the final negotiations began -- Nov. 25, Black Friday -- several people involved in the talks recreated an incredible scene that underscored just how close the NBA came to losing the entire season.
No Christmas Day. No 66-game schedule. No All-Star Weekend. Nothing. Sometime between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET on Nov. 25 -- and various sources' recollections of the exact timing vary by an hour or so -- the 2011-12 NBA season almost perished.
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In fact, based on accounts provided to CBSSports.com by people on both sides of the negotiations, the 2011-12 season was all but pronounced dead that night. Several times. Somehow, some way, it was brought back to life.
"It was almost a wrap quite a few times," said Maurice Evans, a member of the players' executive committee. "Numerous times, both parties almost ended it. But each time, it was a last-ditch effort by someone to keep us together."
In the early evening hours of Nov. 25, as dozens of customers lined up to browse the Apple store outside the law offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the final effort to save the season had gone terribly wrong. Hunter, according to sources, informed Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee, that the negotiations were over and that he was leaving. Hunter stood up and gathered his belongings.
"We're done; that's it," Hunter said, according to a person who was in the room. "We’ll let this play out in the courts. I'm not f------ negotiating anymore."
The two negotiating teams scattered, and high-level members of the players' legal team tried in vain to talk Hunter back in the room. At some point, around 9 p.m. according to a person familiar with the conversation, Holt was on the phone with an official from the NBA office. The message was clear: Talks had broken down. The fight to save the season was over. Get ready for the news conference.
Recollections of what happened next vary somewhat depending on who's telling the story. In one version, Holt received a knock on the door while he was still on the phone with the league official. It was a representative of the union, asking that Holt and the owners return to the bargaining table.
This version was categorically denied by a source from the players' side, who said Hunter was strongly resisting efforts from his staff to continue bargaining. According to this version, it was Holt who knocked on the players' door. When he was let in, Holt asked to speak with union president Derek Fisher and Evans to make sure they were in agreement with Hunter that the talks were over. Hunter lashed out angrily at Holt.
"Don't you believe me when I tell you we're finished?" Hunter said, according to a person in the room. "We're done."
This is where some strange events from that night come into focus and begin making sense -- events that were mindboggling at the time, and then were forgotten or eclipsed by the 3 a.m. haze when an agreement finally, in fact, was reached.
At about 10:25 p.m., reporters waiting outside the law office were startled to see Stern approaching from 59th Street and walking along the perimeter of the building. It was a surreal sight -- the 69-year-old commissioner of the NBA, who was presumed to have been inside negotiating, looking harried and rushed as he strode past the waiting reporters with only a wave. He was alone.
While the talks were deteriorating inside, Stern had stepped away to have dinner with his wife to celebrate their anniversary, two people familiar with the events said. All that Holt and Hunter's staff could persuade Hunter to do was wait until Stern came back before walking out of the talks for good.
"Me, Billy and Derek were all on the same page," Evans said. "When we wanted to leave, we all wanted to leave. When we wanted to stay, we all came back into the room and listened."
One of the people involved in the talks that night estimated that Stern was out of the room for about 90 minutes. When he strode toward the building at about 10:25, the talks -- and the season -- were on life support, at best.
Meanwhile, the league official who had been told by Holt around 9 p.m. to prepare for a season-canceling news conference, waited, too. And waited. And waited. Soon, 10:30 became 11:30, which became 12:30. It was now Nov. 26, and interested parties monitoring the talks from afar began collapsing -- with their cell phones and Blackberries on and within reach.
At about 3 a.m., one of those league officials received a call that a news conference was, in fact, about to happen. But the topic would not be the canceling of the season, but rather an agreement in principle on a new collective bargaining agreement. About eleven minutes later, this tweet went out, broadcasting the news that the NBA season had been saved.
"I don't exhale," Hunter said Saturday, when asked to reflect on the relief he felt in those early morning hours.
"Both sides had come too close to turn around," Evans said. "I'm glad we were able to get it done."
So now the conversation turns to whether the deal that was struck will turn out to be good for both sides, and how that determination will be made. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said recently that it would take "three or four years" to make that call. As to whether the owners got a good deal or not, Cuban said, "We'll see what happens if we have a chance to opt out of it in six years."
"Are all the teams making money?" Cuban said.
Some union officials already are shaking their heads at this apparent moving of the target by Cuban, who voted against the deal. Throughout the process, deputy commissioner Adam Silver spoke of two distinct goals: 1) giving every team, if well managed, the opportunity to be profitable; and 2) achieving competitive balance.
But Hunter, speaking Saturday at the Orlando state fair grounds, said he saw this coming.
"That was a camouflage," Hunter told CBSSports.com. "That was a subterfuge. That's what I'd said to you guys all along, and you never bought into it. So I can't understand why now, on the back end, when he says something all of a sudden it rings true. I said all along that's what it was about. It was about them making money. It wasn't necessarily about any competitive balance, and I said that to them in many, many meetings. It was about splitting up the dollars and the owners putting money in their pockets."
On Saturday night, after Stern reiterated that he would not be commissioner when the parties have a chance to opt out of the labor deal in 2017 and said he would recommend Silver to succeed him, Stern disputed Hunter's characterization of the owners' goals.
"We said that teams who are well managed should have the ability to make a profit and compete," Stern said. "And so there's no guarantee. It's only an opportunity. And I think that's what [Cuban] meant. I don't think he misspoke. I think that's what he meant. He didn't say there was a guarantee to make a profit; it was the opportunity to make a profit. And if that opportunity exists, that's what we want. That's what we're heading for. I think that will be achievable and it should make everybody very happy."
Hunter said Stern has told him TV ratings, attendance and merchandise sales are all up this season despite the lockout, and that Silver mentioned at a recent meeting over unresolved bargaining issues that revenues are expected to exceed the league's expectations this season. But as far as evaluating the deal from the players' perspective, Hunter said this coming free-agent summer would be telling.
"When we see how the signings go this summer, then we'll know what kind of deal it is and if the deal is everything that we thought it would be," Hunter said.
Addressing Cuban's comment about the owners possibly opting out of the deal after six years, Hunter said it was "a lot of hot air."
"If they want to opt out, then it's on them," Hunter said. "The players may elect to do the same thing six years from now."
However it plays out, neither Hunter nor Stern will still be in charge. Hunter, 69, said Saturday that he has four years left on his contract after this season and strongly hinted that it will be his last.
"I've got four grandchildren, and what I'm doing now is, I'm trying to spend as much time as I can with my grandchildren," Hunter said. "I don't know how much time I've got left on this planet, so I don't think that far ahead."
On what was going to be the last night of the labor talks one way or another, there was little reason to look forward to All-Star Weekend, or having a season at all. Simply put, it was all gone.
On Sunday, three months to the day, the NBA is back with its showcase event. Reason enough, it would seem, to exhale.