Michael Jordan came down from his luxury suite in this city's newest billion-dollar hotel, mingled with the union's masses and gave no hint as to whether he'll be playing basketball when the lockout ends.
On this day, Jordan's message was the same as that heard from 240 players, that the union is unified and will never accept a hard salary cap.
"My mind is still open. I haven't made my decision, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be a part of the union," Jordan said Thursday after the largest gathering in the history of the National Basketball Players Union.
"I owe an obligation to the young players and the players who came before me," Jordan said. "This work stoppage is not our fault. We're willing to work, but David Stern shouldn't be able to force us to play under a deal that's unfavorable to us."
Jordan said he was in the worst shape of his life, "but when the time comes I'll be ready if that's the case."
After meeting for almost five hours, union director Billy Hunter announced that the players had voted unanimously to never accept a hard salary cap. He also said the entire player population -- almost 400 players -- would come to New York next week to request a formal bargaining session while the league's Bord of Governors was in town.
"We'd be willing to do it with as many players as they'd like to bring," deputy commissioner Russ Granik said in response. "We'll meet with anybody."
| Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan were among the 240 players who met in Las Vegas on Thursday. (AP) |
The sides haven't met since Oct. 13, and the owners and players remain far apart on the issues of a "hard" vs. "soft" salary cap and elimination of the so-called Larry Bird exception that allows teams to exceed the cap to retain their own free agents.
Pippen is one of the players who has waited years for his Bird rights to take effect, and he would stand to lose the most if the exception was weakened or phased out.
"I know the opportunity has come to get market value, but I came here because I want to see the future of the game enhanced," Pippen said. "I think their offer upsets a lot of us, especially the free agents."
The players-only meeting was not open to the media, but many of those who attended said it was marked by player after player standing to make his case for unity and a hard-line stance.
"I thought Karl Malone was the best speaker. He gave a very impassioned plea, a great plea for us to stick together," Charles Barkley said. "We do want to play. We feel bad for the fans and the players, but that's it. We don't feel bad for the owners."
David Robinson even admitted that he was initially unwilling to sacrifice paychecks for a union that has been historically disorganized, but this particular show of force convinced him that the players are together.
Malone, meanwhile, took to the podium for a news conference afterward and admitted that he was mistaken in the past when he often sided with management and bashed the union.
Malone said his outlook had changed after he attended a bargaining session in New York on Aug. 6 and watched the owners walk out upon hearing the players' latest proposal.
"I bought into everything that management was telling me. But when I saw for myself, I changed. I'm a man and I admit I didn't pay attention in the beginning, but I've turned around," Malone said.
The players also heard from baseball union executive director Donald Fehr and NFL union head Gene Upshaw.
Fehr, seen walking arm-in-arm with Hunter, counseled the players to stick together. Upshaw told them decertification of the union was the wisest course of action.
When the meeting finally adjourned, the tough talk from Jordan was typical of what all the plaers were saying.
"In dire need, what we do is bind together. We believe in the cause, we didn't start this fight and we have to stand for what we believe in," Jordan said.
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