By Jeff McDonald
LAS VEGAS — National Basketball Players Association president Derek Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter took the podium in a hotel meeting room here Thursday, backed by 33 other players wearing matching gray T-shirts emblazoned in gold with one word:
Though the players’ kumbaya moment was scripted and largely symbolic, their message was unmistakable. There would be no union mutiny in Sin City. At least not today.
“There is not the fracture and the separation amongst our group that in some ways has been reported,” said Fisher, the Los Angeles Lakers guard. “We just want to continue to reiterate that point.”
Hunter, in Las Vegas along with Fisher to update players on the latest round of collective bargaining talks with NBA owners, arrived in the desert under fire as the lockout hit the 11-week mark.
With a collection of heavy-hitting agents pushing for union decertification, a move that would take negotiating power out of Hunter’s hands and shift the process to the long slog of the legal system, there was a sense Thursday’s meeting might have turned contentious.
Based on accounts of eyewitnesses in the room for a confab Fisher called “colorful and engaging,” it did not.
About 40 players attended the informational meeting, the first the first among NBPA membership since talks broke down Tuesday over the owners’ insistence on a hard salary cap. Most of those players were already in Las Vegas to participate in the Impact Competitive Basketball series, an informal pick-up league.
Second-year guard James Anderson was the only Spurs player to attend the briefing.
“I’m just waiting it out, preparing myself for when it ends,” Anderson said. “I’m trying to focus on working on getting better. Whenever it ends, I’ll be ready for it.”
Though player turnout Thursday represented about 10 percent of union membership, the buzzwords of the day were “togetherness” and “solidarity.”
“If the owners were waiting for some break in the ranks, that’s been put to bed,” Hunter said.
That’s not to say the dicey subject of decertification did not come up.
DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL’s players association two months removed from the end of that league’s lockout, addressed the NBPA as an invited guest of Fisher.
Part of Smith’s message, according to Hunter: Though NFL players did vote for decertification, the tactic was not a “silver bullet” for ending the NBA’s impasse.
Hunter refused to take the decertification off the table Thursday, but will wait until after a National Labor Relations Board ruling on the union’s complaint against the NBA, which he expects sometime before the end of the month.
“Any decisions made in the future will be made by the players standing behind me and their colleagues,” Hunter said in a not-so-veiled shot at pro-decertification agents.
As the players went to dramatic lengths to show solidarity in Las Vegas, the NBA Board of Governors — a group that included Spurs owner Peter Holt, head of the league’s labor committee — convened in Dallas to determine their next course of action.
League officials emerged trumpeting the owners’ own sense of unity.
In a letter sent to players before Thursday’s meeting and first made public by SI.com, Fisher blamed the breakdown in the latest spate of talks on “a fundamental divide between the owners internally.”
Twelve hundred miles away in Dallas, NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver bristled at that characterization.
“There is absolute agreement,” Silver said, “and it’s a complete fiction coming from somewhere that there isn’t.”
With the players seemingly willing to give on the split of basketball-related income, reportedly prepared to reduce their share to 53 percent or less from the current 57 percent, there is optimism among union leadership that the framework of a deal might be close.
The sticking point now appears to be the mechanism by which the players’ money is to be delivered.
Owners are bent on a hard salary cap to replace the current soft cap, though some — such as Phoenix’s Robert Sarver and Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert — are believed to be more vehement on the issue than others.
“Some people might say they want a hard cap with this wrinkle and someone says I want a hard cap with that wrinkle,” NBA commissioner David Stern said. “But I would say there is unanimity in favoring a hard cap, period.”
Fisher said he believes fewer than half of the NBA’s 30 owners were so stridently in favor of a hard salary cap that they would kill an entire season to get it. He reiterated Thursday any proposal that included a hard salary cap would be a non-starter for the players.
“We expressed a desire to make a fair level of concessions to get this deal done,” Fisher said. “We’ve been met with resistance. We’re going to continue to make the effort, but we’re not going to continue to concede.”
With training camps slated to start as early as Oct. 3, time is running out. On a day of solidarity, both sides were united in that belief.
“The clock is ticking, but it hasn’t struck midnight yet,” Stern said. “We have time to do what has to be done, and we’d like to do it.”