- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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As a labor standoff spanning nearly five months plunged into chaos, NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter could agree on only one thing.
The 2011-12 NBA season, both men conceded Monday, is legitimately in jeopardy.
That was actually the consensus conclusion all over the league after Hunter announced that the team representatives in attendance at a morning meeting in Times Square voted unanimously to file a "disclaimer of interest" that will dissolve the union and signals the players' intent to take their battle with the owners into federal court.
Following a weekend of unusually-aggressive public lobbying by Stern in support of a take-it-or-leave-it proposal issued by owners Nov. 10, Hunter and NBPA president Derek Fisher announced that -- with negotiations between the sides essentially hopeless at this stage -- they planned to file an antitrust lawsuit within 48 hours. The suit will seek a summary judgment that deems the NBA shutdown which began July 1 to be illegal.
Hunter then acknowledged in an interview with NBA TV that, even though the NBPA pushed for disclaiming its status as the players' collective bargaining representative over decertification to get into a courtroom faster, there is a "high probability" that the entire 2011-12 season will be lost because of the lengthy nature of court proceedings.
Said Stern in a subsequent interview on ESPN: "The union decided in its infinite wisdom that the proposal would not be presented to membership [for a vote]." Referring to union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, Stern added ominously: "Obviously Mr. Kessler got his way and we are about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA."
"If I were a player," Stern continued, "I would be wondering what it is that Billy Hunter just did."
The two union leaders explained themselves further in a letter to all players Monday night. The letter spelled out the reasons they've opted to transform the NBPA into a trade association that will keep its New York headquarters open but can no longer negotiate with the owners.
According to a copy of the letter, which was obtained by ESPN.com, Hunter and Fisher wrote: "For two and a half years and through more than 50 collective bargaining sessions, we sat at the table and attempted to negotiate a fair labor agreement with the owners. Last week, with the issuance of yet another ultimatum -- a take-it-or-leave-it final offer of a long-term agreement with unacceptable terms -- Commissioner Stern and the owners left us with no other option. It has become clear to us that we have exhausted our rights under the labor laws and continuing in that forum (collective bargaining) would not be in the best interests of the players."
The letter continued: "With no labor union in place, it is our sincere hope that the NBA will immediately end its now illegal boycott and finally open the 2011-12 season. Individual teams are free to negotiate with free agents for your services. If the owners choose to continue their present course of action, it is our view that they subject themselves to significant antitrust liability."
But Hunter and Fisher also acknowledged the "enormous consequences" of the move, telling players -- beyond the unknowns tied to going to court -- that the union will no longer be able to take up grievances on behalf of players, regulate player agents or defend the players' labor-law rights. Disclaiming interest also requires the union to withdraw the unfair labor practice charge filed earlier in the summer with the National Labor Relations Board, which the NBPA once regarded as one of its trump cards for much of the summer.
Although it's not inconceivable that Hunter and Stern could talk again this week to negotiate before the NBPA officially files its anti-trust lawsuit, Stern did his best to downplay the notion that the fear of the unknown might coax some 11th-hour concessions from the owners.
Calling it "an irresponsible action at this late date," Stern dismissed the "disclaimer of interest" plan as a transparent "negotiating tactic."
"But it's not going to work," Stern said on "SportsCenter." "If they were going to do it, they should have done it a long time ago, then maybe we would have had a chance to save the season. But they seem hell-bent on self-destruction and I think it's very sad."
It was widely expected coming out of the weekend that Hunter would respond to Stern's ultimatum offer by announcing that the deal would be presented to the full membership for a vote as long as the league consented to 3-to-5 key amendments. But the disclaimer route likewise surprised many of the agents who have been at the forefront of a push for decertification that has collected an estimated 200 signatures from frustrated players looking to dissolve the union through alternative means.
Sources briefed on discussions in Monday's meetings told ESPN.com that Hunter successfully convinced the players in the room that disclaiming interest would get their case to the court system faster than decertification and enhance the chances that a 2011-12 season of a representative length. Yet sources close to the decertification movement said Monday night that the agents behind the push were still weighing the feasibility of filing the petition with the NLRB, which would lead to a formal vote on decertification for the entire membership roughly 45 days later.
Decertification backers, according to sources, still see some value in going ahead with their petition separate from Monday's action and ultimately filing a flurry of antitrust lawsuits of their own in addition to the union's filing. The idea would be to apply a significant amount of legal pressure to the owners in hopes that the prospect of dealing with multiple lawsuits at once would finally lead to a negotiating about-face from Stern and company.
"We're looking at multiple fronts of havoc," said one source from the decertification faction.
Whether any of that has any impact on league officials in terms of convincing the owners to back off their summer-long hard-line stance remains to be seen. Stern was quick to insist that the strategy "won't work" and accused Hunter of depriving his union members "of an enormous pay date," insisting that the league will indeed soon revert to a far more onerous "reset" offer if no deal was done this week.
"There's some mixed emotions but this is what's best for the league, it's what's best for our players," All-Star guard Rajon Rondo told ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard on Monday. "We have to stand together. It's not about the Boston Celtics selfishly wanting to play this year, it's about what's best for us as a unit."
The players' key leaders going forward are two high-profile lawyers who had actually worked on opposite sides during the NFL labor dispute in the summer. Joining Kessler now is David Boies, who months ago represented the NFL in its antitrust case against the NFLPA. Unless he and Kessler are ultimately ousted as part of the decertification movement, Hunter will continue to serve as the head of the players' new trade association.
"The fact that the two biggest legal adversaries in the NFL players dispute over the NFL lockout both agree that the NBA lockout is now illegal and subject to triple damages speaks for itself," Kessler said in an email to The Associated Press. "I am delighted to work together with David Boies on behalf of the NBA players."
The proposal rejected by the players called for a 50/50 split of annual revenue and a 72-game season starting Dec. 15. But the sides have clashed for days about the various "system" issues that put restraints on teams that stray into luxury-tax territory which, according to the union, will severely hamper free agency and restrict overall player movement.
"We understand the consequences of potentially missing the season; we understand the consequences that players could potentially face if things don't go our way, but it's a risk worth taking," union vice president Maurice Evans said. "It's the right move to do."
Said Fisher: "To imply that as players we've somehow been misled by Billy ... it even implies that we don't understand or we're not capable of understanding the details that were presented to us in [last week's] proposal. And as players we resent that type of implication. We're very aware of what we did not accept and we made a choice with our eyes open."
The NBA's only previous work stoppage to bleed into the regular season reduced the 1998-99 season to 50 games. Monday marked the 137th day of the lockout, one day longer than the NFL's lockout in the summer.
"It's really a tragedy," Stern said.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The NBA players' union has rejected the owners' most recent collective bargaining proposal and will instead seek to disband the union, a move that likely jeopardizes the 2011-12 season.