- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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After spending the past few days trying to convince outsiders that its union is not splintering, members of the NBA Players Association's executive committee will meet this week to map out their next move in stalled labor negotiations with league officials.
Sources told ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher that the union's executive board has scheduled a Thursday session in New York in the wake of multiple public denials from executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher. The denials followed numerous published reports since the weekend that the union's top two officials are no longer working in concert.
In a letter sent Tuesday night to NBA players and obtained by ESPN.com, Hunter wrote: "Contrary to what is being said in the media, Derek, myself and the Negotiating Committee are of one accord. Derek is a fearless defender of player rights both at the bargaining table and behind the scenes, and he carries out his duties as President with the same degree of courage, focus and tenacity that he has exhibited on the court as a five-time champion. We are all well served to have Derek in a leadership capacity during these negotiations."
Those remarks echoed comments Fisher made Monday night in his own letter to union members in which he strongly attacked a FoxSports.com report from Friday. FoxSports.com alleged that Hunter and another unnamed member of the union's executive board have questioned Fisher about his relationship with NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver.
Later Tuesday night, after the release of Hunter's letter, Fisher took it a step further, issuing a statement in which he revealed that he has "issued a letter through my attorneys demanding a retraction for the libelous and defamatory stories the site and reporter have continued to publish."
Fisher said: "The statements made in recent articles on the Fox Sports website are inexcusable. Among the many baseless accusations, to allege that I am working with the league for my personal gain is unequivocally false. The implication that I am doing anything but working in the best interests of the players is disgusting, defamatory and a flat out lie.
"Regardless of the media reports, the Players Association, our staff, Executive Director and Executive Committee are unified and working side by side to serve our players," Fisher continued. "There should be no more distractions. We must continue to negotiate a fair deal for our players."
Negotiations between the league and the union, however, are at a standstill since talks collapsed late last week. With optimism spreading that a deal to save a full 82-game season was close last week, negotiations were abruptly halted Friday when the league refused to budge from its proposal of a 50/50 split of basketball related income and Hunter held firm at 52.5 percent.
On Tuesday, which was originally scheduled to be opening night of the 2011-12 season, sources confirmed that no further negotiating sessions have been scheduled. And ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reported Tuesday that federal mediator George Cohen, after speaking to both Stern and Hunter on Monday, has not yet consented to rejoin the talks as a third-party observer.
Evidence of some splintering on the ownership side is also being speculated after Miami Heat owner Micky Arison was fined a reported $500,000 for telling one angry fan via Twitter that the fan was "barking at the wrong owner" in complaining about the fact that the league's shutdown has lasted more than 120 days and prompted Stern to announce Friday that an 82-game schedule is no longer possible.
Another league source told ESPN.com this week: "All the small to medium markets are hardliners. Not a single small-market team likes the 50/50 proposal."
Yet in an interview with the New York Times, Stern likewise tried to downplay the severity of fissures within the owners' camp and offered his own rebuttal to the FoxSports.com allegations about Fisher meeting separately with Stern and Silver to perhaps strike a secret deal without Hunter.
"That would be false," Stern said.
As for Arison, Stern told the Times: "He believes his tweets were taken out of context and understands our concern about them. And he's very much on board with the other 29 owners about the deal that we want."
And Stern, in the interview, did acknowledge some disagreement within his own camp by confirming to the Times that there are owners in favor of the deal that the union rejected last week -- a 50/50 split of revenue with no hard salary cap -- and owners who are "rethinking" that offer.
"But I believe that a majority of teams are in favor of making the deal that we were offering to the players," Stern said. "And I'm trying very hard to keep that deal on the table."
In his Monday letter to players, Fisher wrote: "Usually I wouldn't even dignify absurd media reports with a comment. But before these reports go any further, let me say on the record to each of you [that] my loyalty has and always will be with the players. Anyone that questions that or doubts that does not know me, my history and what I stand for. And quite frankly, how dare anyone call that into question? The Players Association is united and any reports to the contrary are false. There have been no side agreements, no side negotiations or anything close. We are united in serving you and presenting the best options and getting everyone back to work."
Hunter, in his letter Tuesday, focused mostly on breaking down the specifics to his constituents to explain why talks were abandoned Friday when Hunter himself, on Thursday, announced that a deal was "within striking distance."
"During the marathon session last Wednesday and the two days that followed on Thursday and Friday, we made great progress in working through many of the system issues that must be resolved before a deal can be reached," Hunter wrote. "While the soft cap/luxury tax system we are negotiating is far from perfect and contains positives and negatives for both sides, I believe that if the last few system issues are resolved in our favor, it will be one that we can recommend to you."
After a detailed breakdown of what happened during last week's marathon talks, Hunter wrote in closing: "They have given us 'take it or leave it' ultimatums, threatened to end the season prematurely, reached out to players in an attempt to divide us, misled the press, and pre-conditioned further talks on our acceptance of significant concessions. This is an unacceptable form of negotiation. ... Moreover, it does nothing but damage the relationship between the league and union.
"... Your role is an important one. The owners need to know that we will stand strong until they are ready to finish negotiating a fair deal -- not one reached with preconditions, and not one forced down our throat with the threat of missed paychecks. We have prepared for this moment for over two years and now we are here. We are proud of the actions of our Committee and take great comfort in knowing that we have your support."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher and Chris Broussard contributed to this report.
After spending the past few days trying to convince outsiders that its union is not splintering, members of the players association's executive committee will meet this week to map out their next move in stalled labor negotiations with league officials.