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Monday, November 14, 2011
The NBPA raises the ante on the NBA: Thoughts from the room

By Brian Kamenetzky

As far as CBA stakeouts go, my first was pretty short. Only about two-and-a-half hours in the dim, maroon-hued lobby of the Westin Times Square. That should have been my first sign Monday wasn't going to end well for NBA fans.

Still, like many following along on Twitter or NBA TV, I held out some hope as the seemingly endless stream of mostly large, wholly athletic men, as if exiting some sort of roundball clown car parked just outside the door, filled what had to be the smallest meeting room the hotel had to offer. They formed one row, and another, and still another squeezing and shifting as even stars like Carmelo Anthony seemed stumped on where they'd wedge in. Finally, a full on NBA class photo, all the players were in place. All the while, Billy Hunter worked the room, greeting media members by name, shaking hands. He was smiling.

Kobe Bryant, the only player still wearing his sunglasses, seemed to get absorbed by his colleagues, consciously or not gravitating toward the left corner of the room and the door eventually allowing a quick exit. He wasn't smiling.

Neither was Derek Fisher. Should have been my next tip.

Hunter, first to the podium, didn't wait long to drop the bomb. He quickly thanked the group of athletes behind him, and noted the cross section of talent. Then, "We're here to announce that we've arrived at the conclusion that the collective bargaining process has completely broken down," he said, "and as a result within the last hour we served a notice of disclaimer on Commissioner Stern and the NBA. We plan to disseminate that to all 30 team owners, so they'll know the action we have taken today.

"The players feel that they're not prepared to accept any ultimatums."

And with that, we were introduced to the next chapter of the negotiations. Out with the union leaders, as the union, legally, no longer exists. The NBPA is officially a trade association, no longer with collective bargaining rights but with the ability to create a class action suit against the league, seeking a summary judgment for damages on antitrust grounds. Fisher said the lawyers, Jeffery Kessler and David Boies, would now lead the charge.

Sounds awesome, I thought, as the giant sucking sound of optimism leaving the room whooshed by my ear.

Given that my legal career extended only as far as taking my LSATs and such things aren't covered on "Law and Order," I won't try to explain it all. There is great information to be had here, more (spin variety) here from Boies and Kessler, and still more courtesy of ESPN's Larry Coon.

Still, a few things seem certain based on today's events. First, the general consensus seems to be the move isn't designed to end the season. The players didn't declare 2011-12 over, and neither did Stern later in the afternoon on SportsCenter. Like decertification, it's designed to give the players negotiating leverage they didn't have before, helping push the owners off what players see as hard line stances on revenue splits, system issues, and a whole host of other stuff nobody has gotten around to really negotiating yet.

At the same time, it also makes the court system a potentially massive player in the game, and no matter which side the courts favor, they cost everyone time, the one thing nobody has much of if saving the 2011-12 season is going to happen.

It's tough to know what to think at this point. Having spent Sunday night poring over the proposal put out by the NBA, most of us in the lobby thought it wasn't as onerous as it was made out. We recognized a few bitter pills, but couldn't find the poison pill, and generally thought the players weren't going to do any better. It was easy to see why the players didn't like it, but harder to see why it was unworkable. Different conversations, player tweets and news stories seemed to reveal a membership that didn't fully understand the terms of what was in front of them, but might accept things more once they did.

If the NBA was pitching to us, they won. But they didn't sway the player reps and union leadership, which was evident after their unanimous disapproval. "We have literally compromised, we have literally bargained in good faith for the last two years, and for that not to be good enough is inexcusable and we're left with no options," NBPA V.P.-turned-trade-association-member Mo Evans said. "We understand the consequences of potentially missing the season. We understand the consequences the players could face if things don't go our way. But it's a risk worth taking because it's the right thing to do."

Evans pushed unanimity, just as Stern said his owners were behind the proposal the union leadership (not the union itself, who didn't actually vote on it) turned down, despite myriad reports that said plenty of owners were terrified the players might actually accept. That's how this process works. Neither side can afford to show cracks in solidarity, even though we know it's impossible to get this many powerful people with disparate interests to agree fully on anything.

Though the odds certainly go down, I still believe there will be a season, however truncated. Maybe it's because I want to believe it, maybe it's because on paper, the sides aren't all that far apart and the damage from losing the whole kit and caboodle is almost impossible to quantify. Not while the rest of the country is suffering the worst economy since the Great Depression, economic uncertainty is everywhere, and distrust of the rich and powerful is high. I believe Fisher wants a deal, I believe David Stern wants a deal, that he very much hoped the players would say yes to this one, which I suspect required a lot of political capital to keep on the table.

What I don't know is who is driving either ship, or how exactly we get to point B from point A. I hope the players do, and if so suspect they'll have shown more resolve and commitment to principle than the owners and many others would have predicted. But I'm not sure. Too many still come off as unwitting passengers in the process. Is there any consensus on the player's side as to what an acceptable offer looks like?

This was my thought as this incredible assemblage of basketball talent disappeared from that tiny meeting room.