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50-50 chance for a labor deal?

Owners may sense cracks in player unity

NBPA president Derek Fisher strongly denied a report that he worked on a back-room deal. NBPA president Derek Fisher strongly denied a report that he worked on a back-room deal. (Patrick mcdermott/Getty Images)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 3, 2011

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NBA owners have a common goal in locking out the league’s 450 players. Not only do they want a salary structure that practically ensures a profit, they want to expose the growing cracks in the Players Association.

Some of the cracks may have been revealed this week, so much so that union president Derek Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter have released letters to their constituents, claiming their bond is strong and the union is unified.

The statements came after Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports reported that Fisher was meeting privately with NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver to procure a labor agreement with a 50-50 split of basketball-related income, a deal Hunter said the players refuse to accept.

According to Whitlock, Fisher is attempting to remain in the good graces of Stern to secure employment after his playing career.

Meanwhile, Hunter has promised the players, both superstars and rank-and-file, that he will not succumb to Stern’s demands and will fight for something better than a 50-50 split.

Fisher wrote a letter to the players denying Whitlock’s assertions, claiming he and Hunter are working together to negotiate a deal that will not allow the owners overwhelming financial control.

So angered was Fisher by Whitlock’s column that he released a statement that threatens legal action.

“The statements made in recent articles on the Fox Sports website are inexcusable,’’ the statement read. “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. I have issued a letter through my attorneys demanding a retraction for the libelous and defamatory stories the site and reporter have continued to publish.’’

Sounds convincing, but if Hunter called for a player vote on a 50-50 split in BRI to strike a deal for a 60- to 65-game season, there probably would be more yes votes than he would like to admit.

While Hunter and many player agents are stressing to their clients that a 50-50 split is too much to relinquish, the players - who will begin missing paychecks in less than two weeks - may view the sacrifice as acceptable if it means playing this season.

For example, Celtics free agent Glen Davis, who is not on an NBA payroll and is free to sign with any team overseas without repercussions, tweeted that the players should sacrifice 1 percentage point to complete a deal and end the four-month lockout.

While Hunter would like for outside parties to believe the players are committed to a 52-48 split and nothing less, Davis reflects the opinion of many players who, like many fans, are confused as to why the league would risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars over 2 percentage points.

“Take the 51% man and let’s play,’’ Davis tweeted.

Whether the “man’’ is Stern or Hunter, only Davis knows, but his message is an indication that all is not well with the union.

An executive for an NBA team said this week that he believes the players would be best served accepting the 50-50 split and attempting to win back money on other system-related issues.

And Stern warned that if the owners continue to lose millions of dollars with canceled games, their next proposal is unlikely to come close to the 50-50 offer that has been on the table for a month.

No new negotiating sessions have been scheduled, though the union will meet today to discuss its next move.

An NBA source said the sides have come to an agreement on several issues, and he doesn’t believe the union is going to get a better deal than the 50-50 split. So the question over the next several days is whether the union should relent.

The league unofficially starts to emerge on the national landscape with its Christmas Day games, and one agent said the owners mean business if they even approach the cancellation of that holiday schedule. And the union appears to becoming more disenchanted.

It is unclear how much longer Fisher and Hunter can stick by their convictions. Is the union willing to lose a season and risk ending several playing careers over 2 percentage points? Or should Hunter protect the members - most of whom are not named LeBron, Kobe, or Dwyane - and capitalize on what could be shrinking earning potential?

The consensus in 1998 was that veteran players such as Patrick Ewing, then president of the union, agreed to a substandard deal to end the lockout and avoid wasting the final years of their careers. Fisher is not guilty of that approach, but it’s apparent that he and many members of the union are concerned about their long-term futures.

And that’s exactly what the owners seem to be counting on.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14

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