NBA Players: 'We Wanna Play!'

On the day NBA training camps were supposed to open, dozens of players around the country took their case to the public Tuesday with a simple message: We are not to blame.

"We're here to show the public that we, as players, want to play," union president Patrick Ewing said. "We just want everybody to know that the players want the season to start on time."

Ewing spoke in a parking lot outside the New York Knicks' practice facility -- which was indeed locked -- as part of a media blitz that was unprecedented for a union historically considered disorganized and weak.

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In all, players appeared at 14 training camp sites and NBA arenas in an attempt to influence public opinion over a labor battle that has grown increasingly acrimonious since the lockout began July 1 when the collective bargaining agreement expired.

Talks are scheduled to resume Thursday, and an agreement must be reached in a few days to prevent the cancellation of regular-season games for the first time in league history. The NBA already has canceled the entire exhibition season.

"They locked us out. It's not like we're on strike," said Rockets free agent Mario Elie, one of several players who have been working out together at Houston's Westside Tennis Club. "Everybody's got to get that corrected. It's not on us. The onus is on them. They're the ones that closed us down."

Seattle center Jim McIlvaine spoke outside the Bucks' locked practice facility in Racine, Wis., where players stood in the rain.

"I was more optimistic than pessimistic over the summer, but lately that's turned around," he said. "This Thursday's meeting will be big. The only way we're going to get the season started on time."

But such a dramatic turn seems highly unlikely with the sides far apart on the main economic issues. In a league with almost $2 billion in annual revenues, the owners want to install a "hard" salary cap system with an absolute limit on how much money is paid tplayers.

Patrick Ewing
Patrick Ewing and other NBA players spent Tuesday trying to show fans that players are not at fault for the current labor strife. (AP)

The players, meanwhile, want to keep as much of the old system intact as possible, including the so-called "Larry Bird exception" that allows teams to exceed the salary cap to retain their own free agents. Such a rule allowed Michael Jordan to make $33 million last season when the cap was $26.9 million.

"I haven't heard much about it, so I don't know exactly what was said around the country," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said of the union's appeal to the public. "But I agree that they're not on strike and that cooler heads should prevail -- or at least wiser heads. Maybe everybody's a little too cool."

Granik and commissioner David Stern have spoke recently of canceling the entire season rather than accepting a bad deal. They also say a shortened regular season would have to include at least 50 games.

"We're battling an enormous P.R. machine," said free agent Steve Kerr, one of only two members of the defending champion Chicago Bulls to appear at Berto Center in suburban Deerfield, Ill., where the Bulls practice.

Tuesday's sessions were open to the public. Some fans used it as an opportunity to get autographs, while others seized upon it as an extraordinary chance to have their voices heard.

One Knicks' season-ticket holder made his case directly to union director Billy Hunter, who appeared with Ewing. And though Hunter was sympathetic to the pleadings that no one seemed concerned about the fans, he admonished the man that he was answerable only to his constituency -- the players.

"If you're asking me to accept a bad deal so that you can see basketball, I'm not prepared to do that," Hunter said. "You have to understand that the owners' whole intent is to break the union and cause pain through a lockout.

"They anticipated that the guys would have caved in by now. The reality is that the players are getting stronger every day," Hunter said.

Hunter was making no predictions about how talks will go Thursday, but he said the players would not be bringing any more concessions to the table as they did in April and August.

Hunter complained that the owners have made "ludicrous" proposals, and Ewing said the last offer by the owners almost two weeks ago was "disrespectful."

Granik said he has heard the players were considering an offer to play the upcoming season under the old system. He said if that was the case, owners would refuse.

"The whole point of where we are is that we can't liv with the old deal," Granik said.

The pace of negotiations might pick up after arbitrator John Feerick rules on the union's contention some 220 players with guaranteed contracts for this season should be paid during the lockout. The ruling could come during the next two weeks.

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