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Players Won't Give Up 'Bird Rule'

The notion that the National Basketball Players Association is ready to concede the Larry Bird exception is preposterous, NBPA executive director Billy Hunter told CBS SportsLine Tuesday.

Hunter is incensed over a story that was first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend. The story quoted a reliable source as saying "the vast majority of the union membership is ready to concede changes in the Bird exception while refusing to accept a 'hard' salary cap."

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The views have been raised heatedly the past couple of days because the NBPA and the NBA will resume negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday morning.

Hunter went as far as to accuse NBA management of planting the story.

"I speak to these guys every week and I would say 95 percent of the players are behind us retaining the Larry Bird exception," Hunter said. "I've spoken to 30 guys over the past two days and there's no feeling that guys are giving in."

The "Bird Exception" is the most heated bone of contention in negotiations. Its previous form allowed teams to pay its own free agents an unlimited salary if they had played in the league for a measurable period of time. In that form, the exception has created a soft salary cap that caused the NBA to pay approximately 57 percent of the defined gross revenue, as opposed to the anticipated 48-49 percent.

Consequently, NBA owners voted to opt out of the existing five-year agreement after three years. Additionally, they invoked a player lockout that includes no salaries being paid as of July 1.

"I suspect this is just a story that the NBA has put out there in an effort to cause division or a schism in the ranks," Hunter said. "It's not going to work. Every player is looking forward to exercisig the Bird right. When the average player exercises that right, his salary typically goes from $1 million to $1.5 million, so the average player does get the right to experience a significant raise."

"Contrary to what you've been hearing, we are interested in the minimum salaries and the average player, too. The NBA proposed to raise the minimum ($272,500 this past season) to $350,000. If the present agreement would have stayed in place, it would have gone up to $315,000, anyway. We're proposing the minimum be raised to $500,000 for (players who have been in the league for) five years or less and $750,000 for seven years, and an additional $100,000 for every year over seven. We (the players association) would pay that additional money from our player benefits pool, thereby eliminating the incentive for the team to keep a lesser player."

The NBA folks are amused by Hunter's contention that they would, or even could, plant such a story. Whether the source was solid has no relevance, particularly when you consider Hunter said 95 percent of the 400-plus players association members are behind the Bird exception. It's certainly not impossible for the reporter to have found one of the disgruntled 5 percent who believes he has been left out of the negotiations.

NBA officials are far more concerned with finding a common ground. Deputy commissioner Russ Granik has been more than open with Hunter and generally forthcoming in the media. The NBA has never had a work stoppage before. However, the appearance of that happening this fall is growing and petty arguments shouldn't get in the way.

That prompted NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre to return a phone call from CBS SportsLine with an amiable, "We decline comment."

Hunter went on to say he has raised the issue with commissioner David Stern that because most NBA players are black, the league would have a more difficult time regaining the faith of the general fan than baseball, which has a smaller percentage of blacks.

"We have to be concerned about the race issue as one of the elements factored into a protracted lockout," Hunter said. "If fans decide to walk away from the game because the situation deteriorates like baseball, we may not have sufficient history in terms of fan support. Fans may be less inclined to come back because the league is predominantly black, and it might be a factor."

"This is like the elephant in the living room nobody wants to talk about. How can you, in one instance, have basketball players associated with being a hip-hop culture, players wearing baggy pants too low and carrying weapons? This perception is becoming pervasive in a subliminal, abstract way. We tend to mischaracterize. The vast majority of the players are not like that, but for whatever reason, it gets painted that way in a broad stroke. You don't hear about Steve Smith giving $5 million to Michigan State, Cliff Rozier offering a kidney to his sister or Sha giving $2 million for computers for city kids."

Is Hunter saying the NBA is subtly perpetuating the stereotype? Not really. He is more than hinting the NBA could do more when it comes to contradicting this conventionalized image.

Then again, this is all about posturing at this point. When the sides meet in Manhattan Thursday morning, we certainly don't want the air to be too clear.

"It's all part of the terrain," Hunter said. "I was the one who reached out to David (Stern) to reconvene. I just want to reiterate: There are no cracks in the armor and you are getting it from the horse's mouth. I'm sure some people would like to hope and believe there are some cracks in this armor, but I can assure you, that isn't the case."

© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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