- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association negotiated Wednesday for eight hours past the league's stated 5 p.m. ET deadline for a deal and made sufficient-enough progress to schedule another round of talks for Thursday.
Thursday's talks began shortly before 1 p.m. ET. The two sides met for more than nine hours, working to try to find a way to save the season.
The union had nearly its entire executive committee in attendance, with president Derek Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter joined by players Chris Paul, Maurice Evans, Roger Mason Jr., Keyon Dooling, Theo Ratliff, Etan Thomas, Matt Bonner; attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and Ron Klempner, and economist Kevin Murphy. Management stuck with the same small group as Wednesday: NBA commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee, and attorneys Rick Buchanan and Dan Rube.
Officials on both sides spoke modestly about what was achieved during a session that lasted 12 hours in total and cautioned against getting swept up in the latest wave of optimism around the league that a deal to finally end the 133-day lockout is near.
"There was enough give and take on both sides to merit us both coming back tomorrow," Hunter said late Wednesday.
The union was hoping for more after Hunter and Fisher, for the first time since the lockout began, were authorized Tuesday by player reps from 29 of the league's 30 teams to accept a 50/50 split in annual Basketball Related Income if they could secure concessions from the league on the five or so remaining "system" issues that have kept the sides from striking a deal.
NBA.com reported that an unspecified amount of progress was made on three of those system issues, but that the parties continue to struggle to find compromise on the parameters of a workable mid-level exception and face "a couple of new issues added to [the] mix."
The various restrictions and penalties that owners continue to insist on to regulate teams that stray into luxury-tax territory, sources say, are where the sides continue to snag.
Another major hurdle, sources say, is the knowledge shared by both Hunter and Stern that the votes to approve any deal are likely to be closer than ever before in past labor battles, given the rival factions that have formed within both groups during the work stoppage.
"We can't say that there was significant progress made today," Fisher said.
Said Stern: "Nothing was worked out today. ... We're not failing and we're not succeeding. We're just there."
Wednesday's triumph for the union, then, was keeping the talks going well enough to convince Stern to abandon the ultimatum he issued to the players Sunday, which called for the league to immediately revert to a far more restrictive proposal than the deal presented Saturday if there was no accord by 5 p.m. ET Wednesday.
Stern said the league will revert to the lesser offer, which affords the players just a 47 percent annual share of BRI as well as a hard salary cap and rollbacks of existing contracts, at the end of the current session.
The fact that the sides continued to trade proposals behind closed doors well past the deadline Stern issued Sunday prompted players, team executives and agents all over the NBA -- as seen on more than one occasion last month -- to believe that a tentative agreement was near.
Hunter and Fisher, however, have assured their constituents that the league will relax some of the proposed restrictions against tax teams, such as its determination to forbid them from participating in sign-and-trade deals and refusal to grant taxpayers access to the full mid-level exception. So the union's power brokers are under pressure to deliver a few significant concessions in exchange for the union dropping to a 50/50 split after players earned 57 percent of BRI in the final season of the previous labor deal.
Stern, meanwhile, has to contend with a group of small-market owners -- led by Charlotte's Michael Jordan -- that doesn't even want to offer 50/50.
ESPN.com reported Tuesday that player reps were informed during Tuesday's union meeting in New York that the league currently expects just 17 teams (including the league-owned New Orleans Hornets) to approve the deal as constituted, with 13 teams opposing. It takes only a simple majority (16 teams) to approve a new labor deal, but Stern has maintained all summer that he prefers a stronger majority than that to seal the deal.
Said Hunter: "There are so many issues that haven't been resolved."
Should talks collapse again this week, sources say that players and agents at the forefront of a drive to dissolve the union through decertification will be ready to move forward with plans to file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board calling for a decertification vote.
Hunter himself acknowledged in a Tuesday night interview with NBA TV that a fast-moving decertification push -- fronted most notably Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce -- has "close to" 200 players in the process of signing a petition that would trigger a decertification vote. The movement, sources said, has grown to include more than the original seven agents (Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegan, Leon Rose, Jeff Schwartz, Arn Tellem and Henry Thomas) who have been advocating decertification for months.
"I think you'd be surprised how big it's gotten," said one source, who added that "the wheels are in motion" and that signatures are already "coming in pretty quickly."
Decertification is a two-step process that requires 30 percent of the league's workforce -- an estimated 130 players -- to sign the petition calling for a vote. That petition is then forwarded to the NLRB, which would take up to 45 days to ratify the petition and arrange the vote, during which the union and league could continue to negotiate.
Decertification backers believe that the fear of the unknown, with the labor fight potentially moving into courtrooms, would finally move NBA owners off the extreme hard-line negotiating stance they've maintained and lead to a more palatable offer during that 45-day window. Sources on the ownership side, however, have scoffed at the threat of decertification and likewise believe that the pre-emptive federal lawsuit filed by the NBA during the summer could potentially take the sting out of any potential decertification, although that remains a matter of some debate among legal analysts.
ESPN.com reported Tuesday that the union did not conduct a formal vote of the players assembled in the room, opting instead for an informal "everyone agrees" consensus that authorized Hunter and Fisher to accept a 50/50 BRI split as long as the league makes some concessions on some of the remaining system issues.
But sources briefed on the owners' thinking insisted Wednesday that Stern only has the latitude to make minor tweaks of "B-list" issues that would change the overall scope of the deal only marginally.
The offer Stern made Sunday attached to Wednesday's deadline called for players to receive between 49 percent and 51 percent of annual BRI. Union officials contend that it would be nearly impossible for the league to generate sufficient revenue in any given season for the players to earn more than 50.2 percent, but Hunter and Fisher now have the go-ahead for the first time all summer to go that low on BRI if the owners will agree to relax some of those limits they want to impose on teams that stray into luxury-tax territory, which the union is fighting because it believes they will severely restrict player movement.
The negotiating teams in Wednesday's marathon session, which began at 1 p.m. ET in Manhattan and ended at 1 a.m. ET Thursday, were small by design. Stern was joined on the league's bargaining team by Silver, Holt representing the owners and Buchanan and Rube.
Hunter and Fisher were joined by Fisher's fellow board members Evans and Mason, Klempner, Kessler and Murphy.
Kessler joined Wednesday's talks only after issuing a public apology in the wake of an interview he granted late Monday to The Washington Post, in which he said that NBA owners treat players like "plantation workers."
"The comments I made in The Washington Post took place in an interview late Monday night after a very long day," Kessler said in a statement. "Looking back, the words I used were inappropriate. I did not intend to offend. I was merely passionately advocating for the players.
"I intend to call commissioner Stern and offer my apologies for the remarks. It's very important that there be no distractions now and that the parties try to make a deal to save the season."
Union officials were privately furious with Kessler's comments, which prompted Stern to describe the veteran negotiator's conduct in sessions with the NBA as "routinely despicable."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Information from ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine's Ric Bucher, ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The NBA and the NBA Players Association negotiated Wednesday for eight hours past the league's stated 5 p.m. ET deadline for a deal and made sufficient progress to schedule another round of talks for Thursday.