- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Thirty NBA basketball players walked into a Beverly Hills hotel on Friday hoping to hear a plan, expecting to find some solace in their shared plight, and prepared to swallow what appeared to be a set of dwindling options for a happy resolution.
What they got was something else altogether: some fight.
After two years of mostly passive, polite negotiations with the owners, the National Basketball Players Association finally fired back with a few rhetorical haymakers.
"If somebody wants to point a gun at my head, I'm going to point one back at him," NBPA executive director Billy Hunter said when asked about NBA commissioner David Stern's assertion that the lockout could last until at least Christmas if no deal is consummated on Tuesday when both sides meet with a federal mediator.
"It's not just the players that are going to suffer if there are games lost. What [Stern] has failed to reveal to you is the amount of economic damage [the owners] are going to suffer," Hunter said. "The pain is mutual. If you're going to inflict some pain on the players, there is going to be some pain inflicted on them as well.
"They've got to be concerned about, whether or not, in the face of a prolonged lockout, there's going to be some franchises that won't make it."
After two years of level-headed talk and negotiation in which the players have conceded much already, those words landed with some thunder and suggested a new strategy coming from the players' association.
Perhaps it is simply timing. Now that games are about to be lost, it's time to swing a bigger bat if the players are ever going to make contact.
Perhaps Hunter & Co. were starting to sense some frustration and impatience amongst the rank and file.
Although his comments were dismissed by union leaders as uninformed and inaccurate, JaVale McGee's instantly infamous disclosure that "there's definitely some guys in there saying that they're ready to fold," suggest there is some truth to the sentiment.
Even union president Derek Fisher acknowledged that there are some "differences of opinion" within his union.
Whatever the reason, the shift to a more aggressive posture was clear.
"We haven't played dirty pool, put owners on the spot and tried to undress them in the media," players' association vice president Maurice Evans said. "Because we still are optimistic and hopeful that a deal can be reached.
"But it has to be said. For those owners who are under the impression, or have been led to believe that they will be just fine because of the deal they will ultimately get, whether it's one month, three months, six months, next year, that's a falsehood."
Evans said the players' association has projected it will take the owners until at least 2023 to recover the basketball-related income they will lose if the entire season is canceled.
"And that's the best-case projection," he said. "What about the worst case? Some teams that don't recover until 2030 or 2040. Which owners, as individuals, can afford to take those hits?"
Whether this will end up as ineffectual bluster remains to be seen. The owners still hold most of the leverage in this fight. Only a dramatic ruling in the courts or internal dissent amongst the owners can make a dramatic difference at this point.
The owners can probably hold out a little longer too, having just collected season-ticket revenue over the summer and television and radio contract money. (However many games they end up missing, that money will be paid back to the networks after the season, not now.)
But after months of the players simply saying they were united and prepared to weather this storm, it was interesting to see them finally flip the script and suggest the owners could have a harder time bearing the damages done by a protracted lockout.
"The damages that will be suffered will be heavy and devastating on both sides," Evans said. "And frankly speaking, more devastating on their side."
Some of that rhetoric is obviously meant to play to the union's home crowd. To buck up the rank and file who are about to start missing paychecks.
But for the first time in a while, it sounded as if the players' union had a plan to emerge from this lockout with something other than an honorable surrender.
For months the union has argued that this should be about what's fair. That was never going to be a winning strategy.
It is, as always, about which side can take more pain. We're about to find out.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann