David Stern: Season hangs in balance
When NBA labor talks resume Friday, NBA commissioner David Stern is planning to threaten players with the cancellation of the entire 2011-12 season if the sides haven't made major progress toward a deal by the end of the weekend, according to sources close to the talks.
Although sources said the union views such an extreme stance as more of a negotiating tactic than a legitimate threat, Stern went almost that far in his comments to reporters in New York on Wednesday after a second straight day of negotiations.
Referring to meetings scheduled Friday that are expected to attract as many as 15 owners and star players such as the Heat's LeBron James, Stern said: "I'm focused on let's get the two committees in and see whether they can either have a season or not have a season, and that's what's at risk this weekend."
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The NBA denied Wednesday night that Stern has any such extreme intentions. "It's simply not true," NBA senior vice president Tim Frank said.
In 1998-99, which ranks as the only season in NBA history in which regular-season games were lost to a work stoppage, no deal was reached until Jan. 6, 1999, with a 50-game season finally starting on Feb. 6, 1999.
It remains to be seen if Stern's remarks to the media will have the intended "scare" effect and convince players to accept a deal now on the premise that the NBA is not willing to stage a shortened season this time.
At a minimum, sources said, cancellation of regular-season games next week is a certainty if a deal isn't within sight by Monday.
The league and the union did agree Wednesday to meet again Friday and likely through the weekend, but Stern warned that there are "enormous consequences at play" in the coming days. Sources said that the sides need to have an agreement in principle by the middle of next week at the latest in order to ensure that the entire 82-game regular season, scheduled to begin Nov. 1, can be played.
Two days' worth of talks ended Wednesday to allow negotiators from both sides to observe the Rosh Hashanah holiday that began Wednesday night at sundown.
Each side has summoned its respective bargaining committee to New York on Friday for the most important stretch of the lockout to date, pledging to meet through the weekend if progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement is being made.
NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter has called for his executive committee members, as well as some of the league's superstars such as Kobe Bryant and James, to meet Friday in New York, sources told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. Bryant, though, has been in Europe all week on a Nike promotional tour and is not expected to be back in time for Friday's session.
Sources told Broussard that Stern is also scheduled to meet with league owners Friday, with owners and players expected to end up in the same room for negotiations. If James attends, that could result in his first face-to-face meeting with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert since James left Cleveland for Miami last summer.
I'm focused on let's get the two committees in and see whether they can either have a season or not have a season, and that's what's at risk this weekend.” -- David Stern
Union president Derek Fisher of the Los Angeles Lakers said of the expanded meetings: "I think it points more toward the calendar than actually being able to measure progress. It points to the realities that we face with our calendar and that if we can't find a way to get some common ground really, really soon, then the time of starting the regular season at its scheduled date is going to be in jeopardy big-time."
Fisher said some of the league's biggest names could join the executive committee in Friday's meeting, and Miami guard Dwyane Wade has committed to attend.
Wade was part of a meeting about labor issues at the 2010 All-Star Weekend in Dallas, when players were briefed about owners' plans for dramatic changes to the league's salary structure.
"I look forward to learning something that I didn't learn two years ago," Wade told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Hopefully it's different information, something that will move us forward. Hopefully we don't walk out of the meeting back at where we were at the All-Star Game two years ago."
Wade has been in New York for the past couple days for business meetings. When the invitation came to attend Friday's session, he did not hesitate.
"I've talked to a couple guys," Wade said. "I'm here. ... I was going to leave tomorrow, but I'm going to stay in town and go to the next meeting."
With the scheduled Nov. 1 season openers just over a month away, Stern said there would be "a lot of risk" attached to a failure to reach an agreement in principle by the end of the week. But both sides made it clear in press briefings after Wednesday's talks that there hasn't been enough progress to put them on the verge of a deal.
The lockout entered its 90th day Wednesday.
During Tuesday's bargaining session in New York, Stern offered a new proposal to the players' union that budged slightly from the owners' long-held position on establishing a hard cap, league sources familiar with the negotiations told ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher.
Stern wouldn't comment Wednesday when asked whether owners had softened their salary-cap stance. Nor would he say if the season could still start on Nov. 1 without having any preseason play at all.
"I shouldn't deal with hypotheticals here," he said.
"All I'd say to that is that there are enormous consequences at play here on the basis of the weekend," Stern continued. "Either we'll make very good progress -- and we know what that would mean, we know how good that would be, without putting dates to it -- or we won't make any progress and then it won't be a question of just starting the season on time, there will be a lot at risk because of the absence of progress."
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Training camps have already been postponed and 43 preseason games scheduled for Oct. 9-15 were canceled last week. The league has said it will make decisions about the remainder of exhibition play as warranted, but further cancellations were expected at week's end even before Stern turned up the pressure with his comments Wednesday.
Fisher said the players' executive committee could be joined Friday by other star players who would be invited if their schedules allowed. The owners' labor relations committee consists of 11 members, but Fisher acknowledged that there could be about 15 owners present.
"I can't say that common ground is evident, but our desire to try to get there I think is there," Fisher said. "We still have a great deal of issues to work through, so there won't be any magic that will happen this weekend to just make those things go away, but we have to put the time in."
Bucher reported Tuesday night that owners did not offer players a finite annual team limit on salaries but are willing to relax their insistence on a hard cap only if certain conditions are met.
Those conditions include:
• The "Larry Bird exception," which allows teams to exceed the cap to retain their own free agents regardless of their other committed salaries, is limited to one player per team per season.
• The mid-level exception, which the league valued at $5.8 million last season and could be extended by as many as five years, is reduced in length and size.
• The current luxury tax, the $1-for-$1 penalty a team must pay to the league for the amount it exceeds the salary cap, is to be severely increased.
In last week's negotiating session, owners proposed that the players' share of basketball-related income (BRI) be sliced from 57 percent to 46 percent. Broussard reported Tuesday that the owners' BRI offer had increased to 48 percent.
Sources say that the owners also want a five percent reduction on all existing salaries for this season, a 7.5 percent reduction of all 2012-13 salaries and 10 percent reduction of 2013-14 salaries.
Bryant, meanwhile, said Wednesday during his tour stop in Italy that it's "very possible" he'll play there if the lockout drags on, noting that he regards the country like home because he spent part of his childhood there while father Joe "Jellybean" Bryant was playing professionally in Italy.
Virtus Bologna has made numerous contract offers to the Los Angeles Lakers star. The club told The Associated Press that the latest talks are centered on an offer a $2.5 million offer for 10 games over 40 days from Oct. 9 to Nov. 16. That would come out to about $1.5 million after taxes.
"It's very possible -- it would be a dream for me," Bryant said Wednesday in Milan, according to the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper. "There's an opportunity that we've been discussing over the last few days. It's very possible and that's good news for me."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard and Ric Bucher and The Associated Press contributed to this report.