NEW YORK – After a three-hour bargaining session with NBA owners Wednesday, complete with a reportedly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to recognize commissioner David Stern’s 68th, players union chief Billy Hunter set forth the first unofficial negotiating deadline for making progress toward a new labor deal: All-Star weekend in Los Angeles.
If the owners and players aren’t able to “develop some momentum” and “resolve some of the issues” by February, Hunter said, “We’ll know what the bottom line’s going to be.”
Both sides know that bottom line will be a lockout, the first the league has experienced since the only failed labor negotiation in NBA history in 1998.
“I would anticipate that by All-Star, we should know whether there’s a likelihood of a deal,” Hunter said outside the Omni Berkshire Place hotel, where owners and players conducted their second bargaining session in six weeks.
As was the case Aug. 12, the meeting was characterized as “cordial and productive” by union attorney Jeffrey Kessler and others, with Hunter going so far as to call the talks “amicable.” Still, there were no significant breakthroughs on how to arrive at a new agreement that both sides would be willing to sign to forestall a work stoppage after the 2010-11 season. The current CBA expires on June 30, 2011.
“Progress was definitely made,” said Derek Fisher of the Lakers, the president of the National Basketball Players Association. Fisher also told CBSSports.com that, unlike the NFL Players Association, the NBA players have yet to take the step of collecting signatures to authorize decertification of the union – a legal tactic that would challenge the league’s right to lock out the players.
“Decertification is an option that is available to us, but we’re genuinely focused on the positive side of getting a deal done,” Fisher said. “The only time decertification has ever even been mentioned for us is as a last resort and something that’s our only choice. Right now we view our choices as working as hard as we can to get a deal done. That’s why we haven’t taken that step.”
If nothing else, Wednesday’s bargaining session did nothing to disrupt the constructive tone of the talks, which have progressed cordially after a contentious meeting at the most recent All-Star weekend in Dallas. A working lunch midway through the session, in fact, was punctuated by serenading the 68-year-old Stern for his birthday. Somehow, the opposing sides were able to agree on how to divide up the cake.
“There’s, at least to me, an optimistic feel to how things are going at this point,” Fisher said.
But the owners and players made little progress on actually closing the “gulf, not a gap,” as Stern described it during the August meeting, on major issues such as the players’ share of revenue, the proposed imposition of a hard salary cap, and drastic reductions in maximum salaries and guaranteed deals. The next step, Hunter said, is to break down into smaller groups to begin tackling “the smaller issues that are not quite as divisive.” Hunter and deputy commissioner Adam Silver will begin scheduling those meetings in the next two days, Hunter said.
The players also for the first time had a chance to walk the owners through their proposal, which was submitted to the league in June. Silver called the process “conciliatory and constructive,” but said, “There remains an enormous economic gap between our two proposals.” Silver also took issue with Hunter’s notion that All-Star weekend represented any kind of deadline.
“I think deadlines are helpful,” Silver said. “I don’t necessarily agree that All-Star is a deadline for us. As you know, this deal expires at the end of June. So we view that as the ultimate deadline.”