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NBA players reject offer; showdown looms

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / November 9, 2011

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The NBA Players Association was not intimidated by commissioner David Stern’s “ultimatum’’ yesterday, rejecting the league’s proposal for a collective bargaining agreement but leaving open the possibility for more negotiations before Stern’s deadline of 5 p.m. today to accept.

Forty-three players met in New York for about three hours to discuss a proposal that included a 50-50 split of basketball-related income (BRI) and other system changes to the luxury tax, mid-level exceptions, and length of maximum contracts.

The Players Association appeared resigned to accepting the 50-50 offer, something it has soundly refused for months, in order to gain more favorable adjustments to the system. Union executive director Billy Hunter is banking that a meeting with Stern today to make those adjustments could improve the chances for an agreement.

But the group made it clear they will not succumb to the league’s proposal in its current state.

“Our orders are clear right now: The current offer that is on the table from the NBA is not one we can accept,’’ said NBPA president Derek Fisher. “We are willing to continue to negotiate. And we are willing to continue discussions on a potential compromise on our number, our BRI, our economics for some continued improvements in the system.

“Our guys are clear, they’re concerned about wanting to do what they love to do. They want to continue to make the efforts to negotiate and get a deal done. But not under any circumstances will they give us the ability to negotiate from a position of weakness.’’

Stern has maintained the past few days that the owners’ offer will dramatically change after today’s deadline, likely to a 53-47 BRI split in favor of the league, with contract rollbacks and nonguaranteed deals.

Stern maintains that the league adopted five of six compromises suggested Saturday by federal mediator George Cohen into their proposal. Fisher said early Sunday morning, following an 8 1/2-hour negotiating session, that the offer was not acceptable. He didn’t budge two days later.

Neither did Stern.

“As of the close of business tomorrow, there will be a new offer from the NBA relations committee,’’ Stern said on NBA TV. “I always take Billy’s calls as a sign of respect and courtesy. [My response] will be guided to a certain degree by the labor relations committee.

“We’ll always be ready to negotiate but our starting point [after today] will be a new proposal.’’

Hunter said he heard through sources that Stern was ready to cancel games through Christmas if no deal was reached today. Stern said that was not true. The league has already canceled games through Nov. 30.

For the first time since negotiations became more intense two months ago, Hunter revealed the issues that the players would like to adjust if they agree to a 50-50 split. They include the length of sign-and-trade deals, the amount of mid-level exception contracts, the escrow percentage taken from player salaries, the penalty for teams that repeatedly exceed the luxury tax, and the salary-cap level that would constitute the reaching the luxury tax.

Hunter said decertification of the union was not widely discussed in the meeting. The Celtics’ Paul Pierce organized two conference calls in the past week to discuss breaking up the union. Pierce did not attend yesterday’s meeting.

On the flip side is Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, who has emerged as the face of the small-market owners who believe a 50-50 split is too generous.

“We are aware who the hard-liners are,’’ said Hunter, “and [what] the players are saying is we understand their position but unfortunately we’re not intimidated by all that.

“Let’s not blow up the game. Let’s not lose the season. Let’s get back on track, and we’re prepared to do it. We’re prepared to negotiate objectively and fairly but we expect the same thing from our adversary.’’

Jordan’s role is ironic considering that his $33 million salary as a member of the Bulls in 1997-98 remains the highest in NBA history and was one of the reasons owners locked out players for part of the 1998-99 season. In one pivotal labor meeting 13 years ago, Jordan pointedly told Wizards owner Abe Pollin that if he was unable to make a profit, he should sell his team.

Jordan is now in Pollin’s position.

“I would give him the advice that he gave Abe Pollin,’’ Hunter said.

Fisher said he has received numerous calls from players wanting to reach a deal, but all agree the current offer is unacceptable.

“The consensus is the same: There isn’t one player who has any interest in accepting a bad deal,’’ he said. “We feel that this current deal on the table is a bad deal.

“Of course our players want to get a deal done, but not at a ‘by any means necessary.’ They still want us to be responsible and negotiate a fair deal.’’

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

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