The plot is thickening faster than Greg Ostertag's waistline.
Midway through the second week of canceled NBA games, revelations continue to float from coast to coast.
As acrimony grew Friday between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, the union sent out checks for $20,000 to all of its 400-plus members from group licensing.
Word out of the union is that 100 top-level players sent their checks back to feather the growing slush fund for players who don't have the benefit of millions in the bank.
"I'm telling you, we're all straight on this," said Seattle SuperSonics guard Gary Payton, who reportedly made $10.5 million last season on basketball alone, excluding endorsements and his music production company.
"If we're all together on this, there are guys who don't need money and guys who do. We have to stay together the right way."
| Billy Hunter speaks for NBA players Wednesday at a news conference. (AP) |
Momentum continues to build in opposite directions. NBPA executive director Billy Hunter erupted at a reporter during a conference call Wednesday when asked if the players were going to splinter once they don't receive their first paychecks on Nov. 15 and Nov. 30. Hunter was insulted by the insinuation.
"I think that's condescending and patronizing," he said. "Don't you think these players know they won't be getting paychecks when they haven't been playing games?"
The point was well taken. They are indeed digging in.
Stern told Hunter on Friday, when it was apparent the 10 percent difference in how much of basketball-related income should be shared (the players want 60 percent and the owners desire a 50-50 split) was becoming a problem, that he had another proposal but wasn't going to lay it on the table yet.
Furthermore, Stern has targeted several high-end agents -- David Falk and Arn Tellem in particular -- as disruptive forces the past 10 days or so. In response to that, Hunter claims the only reason the owners implemented the lockout was to go after the highest-paid players anyway.
When the deal was signed in 1995, with a trigger point of 51.7 percent for the ability to re-open the five-year deal after three years, Hunter didn't realize until recently when they opened the books that the trigger point was already reached when that deal was signed.
"(That deal) wasn't intended to work," Hunter said. "It was set up for the owners to go back and get what they left in the deal. The superstar players didn't take he hit they intended them to take. So this is the way for them to take back what they left."
As for the implied impact of Falk, Tellem and Co., Hunter said he did meet with those two, Mark Bartelstein and Keith Glass last week, and said, "Arn Tellem and David Falk don't run the union. I'm going to make my own decision with the players. I'm my own man. I'm not negotiating for any agents. I represent the players."
NBA spokesman Chris Brienza said the league did not hide the fact that the salary cap was already at the trigger level when the deal was signed in 1995: "That's why we asked them about a luxury tax then, to keep it from growing too fast. They said they didn't want it, that they didn't believe the salaries would escalate that fast."
That said, we now know the salaries exceeded 57 percent last season. The players very likely would accept that as the trigger point for an "escrow payback" if it exceeded the 57 percent -- but only a percentage payback. The owners are asking for an unlimited escrow as soon as the trigger is reached.
"Then it becomes a shell game," Hunter said. "If the payback is unlimited the players won't be getting those salaries. We're going to set a limit. What good is it if you say you're giving a guy $50 when he has to give you $45 back?"
Gauntlets are being dropped all over the place. Hunter reiterated he believes Stern will continue to hope the players cave until mid-December, when he'll come in with a deal they both can live with.
Stern decided last week to open communication between the individual organizations and their players under contract after four months of silence. It is Hunter's contention after talking to players over the past week that they are better informed about the proposals than the front office people are. Discussions have grown to the point of "How ya doin'?" and "How have you been staying in shape?"
Where does this all lead? Everybody is certain a deal must be struck before Christmas or the season is over. They are dickering now with dumping the entire concept of "basketball related income" with a new buzz-phrase: "core revenues." That would allow more specific money to be included for the salary trigger points.
There is no specific date where a deal has to be struck or the season is over, but Christmas Day is as good a date as any. Hunter doesn't believe they'll kill the season and neither does anybody else, really.
"I think they're planning to start the season by Jan. 1," Hunter said. "If not, they'll have to make the decision to cancel the season and I don't believe they're going to cancel the season. There are 29 franchises worth $5 billion and I don't think believe they're going to risk the hundreds of millions of dollars invested by damaging (the product)."
"Can basketball come back a year from now ... will the fans be there? We don't want to cancel the season, everything sort of a bad deal. I don't think the players are going to play Russian roulette and I don't think the owners want to play Russian roulette either."
"We're going to cut the best deal for the vast majority of the membership. We're not going to do a deal that everybody is going to be happy with and we're not going to do a deal that is going to put the NBA out of business."
All that matters is that a deal is struck. And soon. If nothing else, all this goodwill among players should help team chemistry when play resumes.
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