David Stern was meeting with NBA owners in Dallas when he got word of how things went at a gathering of NBA players in Las Vegas.
Unity, the commissioner was told, was a big part of the players’ message.
“We think that’s a good thing,” Stern said. “We would like to negotiate with a strong union that’s capable of delivering a deal.”
Eleven weeks into the lockout, both sides came away Thursday professing their solidarity.
The separate meetings updating their constituents on collective bargaining talks came two days after a session between the union’s executive committee and the owners’ labor relations committee brought no progress after the league refused players’ desire to keep the current salary cap system.
The union emerged from that setback saying the Nov. 1 scheduled start of the regular season could be in jeopardy. Training camps have been expected to open Oct. 3.
Union president Derek Fisher raised the notion of “a fundamental divide between the owners internally” in a letter sent to his membership earlier this week. But after four hours of meetings in Dallas, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver insisted “there is absolute agreement, and it’s a complete fiction coming from somewhere that there isn’t.”
Stern hinted at some difference of opinion when he said there was “virtual unanimity on approach.” He then explained that the differences are minor.
“Some people might say they want a hard cap with this wrinkle and someone says I want a hard cap with that wrinkle,” Stern said. “But I would say there is unanimity in favoring a hard cap — period.”
Fisher and union executive director Billy Hunter met with about 40 players at a Las Vegas casino in what Fisher described as “a very colorful and engaging meeting.” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith also spoke to the players, who were mostly in town to play in an Impact Basketball academy league.
“There is not the fracture and the separation amongst our group that in some ways has been reported,” said Fisher, the Los Angeles Lakers point guard. “We just want to continue to reiterate that point.”
Fisher’s letter to players, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, was first obtained by SI.com. In it, he wrote that owners “could not agree with each other on specific points of the deal (Tuesday) and therefore it caused conflict within the league and its owners. So it is our hope that … at the owners meeting in Dallas that they work out their differences, come up with a revenue sharing plan that will protect their teams and are then ready to come together and sign off on the agreement we as a smaller group deemed reasonable.”
Stern said the owners spent as much time Thursday talking about revenue sharing as they did collective bargaining. He added that a planning committee meeting is scheduled for Friday in New York.
Stern said no negotiating sessions are planned with the union, but “we’ll both be in New York starting tomorrow and it wouldn’t surprise me if there was some conversation.”
The union’s emphasis on solidarity stems from suggestions that players could get antsy once they start missing paychecks in a few weeks. NBPA members have been educated for several years about the steps necessary to survive a long lockout, and Fisher said the union will continue to protect the rights of players who sign overseas this fall.
“I’ve never seen this union as strong as we are collectively right now,” said Boston Celtics center Jermaine O’Neal, among the few remaining players who participated in the 1998-99 labor dispute. “A lot of our young guys are wide-eyed when they see the numbers at first, but now they’re educated. We don’t need to make a temporary, emotional decision. We need to make a long-term decision for a bigger purpose.”
Players discussed union decertification during their meeting, but Hunter emphasized the union believes such a drastic step isn’t an imminent strategy despite behind-the-scenes calls for the move from several agents. NFL players dissolved their union to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league earlier this year.
Fisher rejected the notion that the NBPA is waiting for a ruling on a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair bargaining practices, although Hunter said he plans to travel to Washington next week in hopes of getting an expedited ruling.
“Sometimes it’s implied that we’re waiting, posturing, sitting on the sideline and waiting for something to happen favorable for us with the NLRB,” Fisher said. “That’s just not the case. It’s part of this process, but we’re still taking action. We have to negotiate a deal, and that’s the only way we’ll get what’s fair for these guys.”
If NBA owners are searching for cracks in the players’ unity, as Fisher and Hunter believe, the union attempted to provide a visual answer. Over 30 players stood together behind Fisher and Hunter at a brief news conference, wearing identical gray T-shirts with one large word in yellow: “STAND.”
“All the agendas that might be pushed by different groups, they don’t have a way in as long as we stand shoulder to shoulder,” Fisher said.
The league also announced a five-year deal with referees. Asked whether those refs will have games to work starting Nov. 1, as scheduled, Stern said, “That’s a really good question.”
“The clock is ticking, but it hasn’t struck midnight yet,” he said. “We have time to do what has to be done and we’d like to do it, actually.”
Aron reported from Dallas and Beacham reported from Las Vegas.