SECAUCUS, N.J. -- At the start of a five-hour collective bargaining discussion on Friday, one of the first people to speak was Gary Hall, the No. 2 official at the NBA players' union. And he spoke, like he usually does, quite bluntly.
"Are you guys going to lock us out?" Hall blurted at San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt.
The question was somewhat provocative, and yet somewhat of an icebreaker, too, in the latest round of small group discussions in which the owners and the players have continued to maintain a healthy dialogue while remaining light years apart on the exact terms of a new collective bargaining agreement.
But the dynamics of those labor discussions were irrevocably changed Monday with the news that Hall, a longtime friend and trusted advisor to union director Billy Hunter, had died unexpectedly late Sunday night or early Monday morning.
Hall was Hunter's right-hand man, the person commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver often used as a vehicle to convey certain thoughts and ideas to Hunter, union president Derek Fisher and their lead attorneys.
"Gary was a buddy of mine, actually," Silver said Tuesday night at the NBA draft lottery. "Billy and I have had several long, sort of soulful conversations since Gary passed, and I believe Billy viewed Gary as his best friend in the world, and I think even their relationship, in the same way as I've been working with David for close to 20 years, I think they played off of each other a little bit.
"He was absolutely a key player. I think he also had a great sense of humor, and he helped to keep the meetings light, which is often important in this environment."
Hall, 67, appeared to have died from natural causes, the union said. He worked with Hunter at the U.S. Attorney's office in San Francisco from 1978 to 1985, then joined the National Basketball Players Association five years ago as lead in-house counsel.
Silver recounted how Hunter and Hall would often regale him and Stern with tales of the cases they prosecuted, including a case involving the cult leader Jim Jones, whose followers committed mass suicide at their compound in South America.
All four men are attorneys, and they used their tales of legal battles from years gone by as a diversion from the business they needed to conduct with each other.
"He had a way of sometimes asking very direct questions that sometimes maybe would go unsaid," Silver said. "But I think Gary was great at breaking the ice from that standpoint, but he was also someone we had enormous confidence and trust in, just based on knowing him as long as we have, and knowing that he and Billy were so close.
"When you have two guys who have worked together as long as they have, we knew that when Gary told us something, he was speaking for Billy as well. We'll work through it, but it shook us from a personal standpoint."
Hall and Silver also had spoken on the phone over the weekend about the scheduling of the next round of formal labor talks during the NBA Finals in either Dallas or Oklahoma City. Silver spoke in a conciliatory, almost optimistic tone about the progress the sides have made from a dialogue standpoint, saying they are exploring new ideas in an effort to achieve the owners' goal of reducing the share of revenues devoted to player salaries and giving all 30 teams an opportunity to be profitable.
Stern has said the NBA is projecting a league-wide loss of $300 million this season despite record-setting attendance and television ratings, claiming only eight of the 30 teams are currently profitable. But the union contends that most of that $300 million is attributable to depreciation expenses, plus interest on loans several owners took out to purchase their teams.
The sides have agreed to disagree on the size and scope of the losses, and they have turned their attention to looking at new ways to split up the $4.2 billion of gross revenues the league currently generates.
The league also is seeking a hard salary cap, the elimination of full guarantees on all contracts, and a 40 percent rollback in salaries fazed in over the first three years of a 10-year deal. The union is seeking to retain most of the current system, saying the changes made since the last work stoppage in 1998-99 have had the desired effect of reducing teams' long-term salary commitments.
But to look at how this deal will finally get settled, it is best to look at it in two parts: The financial negotiation, and the negotiation over the operating system with its current "soft" salary cap. And if the players give on the financial end (and they have already offered to eliminate their guarantee of 57 percent of net revenues), the owners will likely need to give on the other end, resulting in a salary cap system that will likely bear a resemblance to the current model.
And if you operate on that premise, the question becomes: How much money will it take (in the form of revenues shifted from the players to the owners) to reach a suitable middle ground?
One of the few people who could have answered that question with some measure of relative certainty was Hall, who was privy to Hunter's notion of where the settlement in this negotiation likely lies.
Another who could postulate with reasonable accuracy on that question is Silver, who made the strongest statement of the night when he said it would be "irrational" for the owners and players to let their dispute evolve into a lockout -- a statement that was quickly overruled by Stern, who said "irrational" was too strong of a word.
In reality, Silver's choice of words was quite succinct.
These are reasonable men negotiating this deal, and there is too much damage to be done by being unyieldingly unreasonable in negotiations. Stern even acknowledged that the sides are at a better point with six weeks left until the deal expires than they were at a similar point in negotiations in 1998, in part because the union does not have the same type of strong personalities in its leadership ranks as it did back in 1998 when Patrick Ewing was the union president and Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo were on the executive council.
I have predicted -- a prediction shared by very few -- that this negotiation will end with a settlement in the first few days of July, without a lockout being imposed.
Or to put it as bluntly, as Gary Hall might have: These guys are not nuts, and this is
not the time to punish the product, demonize the players and dynamite the goodwill and broad interest the sport has generated.
"I think the loss of Gary gives us all a sense of perspective, as well, in these negotiations, and I think it will cause us to redouble our efforts in terms of trying to get a deal done by the deadline," Silver said.
The NBA is on an upward, worldwide growth spurt that shows no signs of abating. It would be stupid to harm it, and the men negotiating this deal are not stupid. Eventually, they have to settle, and it just makes too much sense to settle sooner rather than later.