Behind closed doors, David Stern and Billy Hunter curse at each other like sailors. Their lawyers lash out like longshoremen.
You wouldn't know it from the composure everyone shows at the post-negotiation news conferences, but the behind-the-scenes battles during the NBA lockout are more fierce and foul-mouthed than either wide would like to admit.
"It's more prevalent than people realize, but that's what people do in these negotiations" said Jim McIlvaine, a member of the union's bargaining committee. "It's a competitive business and people become vocal. But I learned in college that the four-letter words come in one ear and go out the other. You listen to the message in between."
McIlvaine had to do a lot of filtering last Thursday during a 10 ½-hour negotiation that was marked by a particularly heated confrontation between Stern and Hunter in the union's caucus room.
According the several participants, the commissioner and the union director engaged in an extremely heated, expletive-laden screaming match that ended with Hunter springing from his chair and Stern storming out of the room.
As they always do, both men soon shrugged it off and continued the negotiating session.
But if the exchange demonstrated anything, it's that the two adversaries at the center of the most divisive labor battle in the league's history have forged a combative relationship that is a mix of mutual respect and mutual mistrust.
Their fight Thursday was one of many spiteful exchanges the two have had during the lockout, which has dragged on for more than 22 weeks. More than two months of the 1998-99 season have already been lost.
Last summer, during thguaranteed contracts hearing before arbitrator John Feerick, the confrontations were the most heated of all, fueled by the interrogation-like nature of the proceeding.
Union lawyers went after Stern, who testified that Shaquille O'Neal, like all players with guaranteed contracts, was technically a free agent during the lockout.
League lawyers went equally hard after Hunter, getting him to testify that he had not read the entire collective bargaining agreement.
McIlvaine, who was present for some of the hearing, said it was a good thing "Feerick was sitting between us in the room."
There have been other heated moments between Stern and Hunter, one accusing the other of being a liar; one accusing the other of insulting him. And the bad feelings are, by no means, confined to the two leaders.
Attorneys for both sides have had more than their share of explosive exchanges, and David Checketts of the Knicks' ownership group had several particularly hostile exchanges in Thursday's meeting.
"That's not why we are where we are," said union negotiating team member Danny Schayes of the Orlando Magic, explaining that foul language and lost tempers and merely part of the process. "We are where we are because two sides have a different idea of what's fair."
"The business we're in," McIlvaine said, "players swear at players and coaches swear at players and vice versa, but it's all water under the bridge the next day and people go on."
McIlvaine said when a settlement is finally reached, Stern and Hunter will be able to "work hand-in-hand on a lot of things to help rebuild what's been lost in the lockout. I don't think either one wants to permanently burn any bridges."
The sides made very little progress Thursday night, and the players only became more convinced that the owners will wait until the last possible moment to put a better offer on the table.
Several players expressed amazement that the owners said they were "not ready" to make a major move toward settling the lockout on Thursday night.
According to several people involved in the negotiations, Stern was told that the players were ready to make significant concessions on the percentage of revenues they were seeking and the restrictions on high-end contracts they would accept.
Stern was asked to make a reciprocal move, but wouldn't.
It was not the first time Stern refused to budge, and his reluctance to concede has become predictable among the players - just as they have gotten to know Stern and deputy commissioner Russ Granik's good cop-bad cop routine, just as the owners have come to know that Patrick Ewing is hard-line and Alonzo Mourning is temperamental, and just as Hunter knows he'll almost always be the one who makes the phone call to try and jump-start the process.
"I always call and I'll continue to call," Hunter said Saturday, refusing to comment on what transpires between him and Stern during ngotiating sessions.
The sides know each other so well that Karl Malone even warned that Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, a member of the league's negotiating committee, would give a speech and cry.
"That's how he got me to sign my last contract," Malone told the players.
Sure enough, Miller gave a tearful plea.
Now, with the chances for saving the season dwindling away, NBA fans can only hope that the sides are so familiar with each other that deep down they know there will be a settlement that ends this ugly fight.
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