NEW YORK – Hall of Famer Bill Russell said a solution to the NBA lockout is being jeopardized by hard-liners on both sides, and urged the parties to put aside their differences and reach a compromise “they can live with.”
“As a very interested bystander, I just hope they get a deal,” Russell told CBSSports.com in a phone interview. “And it will not come from the hard-liners on either side. I think they all know that. I have this theory that hard-liners are like true believers. And true believers think that any compromise is a retreat. And moving forward, that doesn’t cut it.”
Russell’s words carry weight – and not just because he is the most decorated champion in NBA history. The former Celtics’ star was among a group of 20 All-Stars who threatened to boycott the 1964 All-Star Game in Boston unless the NBA recognized the newly formed players’ union.
“Basically I was one of those guys that helped get the players’ association started,” Russell said. “And they've done wonderful things. I knew David Stern before he was commissioner, when he was associate attorney for the NBA. And if I remember correctly, he said, ‘I do not consider the players' association my adversaries. They're my business partners.’
“That's where, a lot of the things that David has done -- and I’ve known him up close -- have been beneficial for both sides,” Russell said.
Russell, 77, winner of 11 NBA titles, wanted to speak with CBSSports.com after he learned of union attorney Jeffrey Kessler’s comments in which he referred to NBA players being treated like “plantation workers.” Kessler, who made the comments to the Washington Post Monday night, apologized to several outlets Wednesday.
“I think that's an invalid accusation,” Russell said. “I think the whole deal is not about black and white. It's about money, OK? I don’t see any signs of being greedy. It's a typical negotiation and that's all it is. And there are a couple of reasons it's difficult, because there's hard-liners on both sides.
“But to me, the name-calling or vilifying the other side is a non-issue,” Russell said. “All that is is a distraction -- a distraction from the task at hand, which is reaching an agreement that neither side will probably be completely happy with. But that's the art of compromise.”
Russell said both sides “have their points,” but he views the key stumbling blocks as owners as trying to “protect themselves from the owners” and a battle between “the small-market teams and the big-market teams.”
“The players want their fair share of the business and the small-market owners don't want to keep losing money,” Russell said.
Russell said he hasn’t kept up with the details of the negotiation, but cautioned both sides that there’s “more to the agreement than just money.”
“I told Billy Hunter a few years ago: Bargain as hard as you can and make a deal,’” Russell said. “I really like and respect David Stern, and I really like and respect Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher. My whole life I've had a love affair with the NBA, and we've had some tough negotiations over the years. But I don’t think we ever vilified the other side. We just had tough negotiations.”
I thanked Russell for his input, wished him well, and told him I hoped to see him soon – at a basketball game.
“I'd like to see a basketball game right now,” he said.