Hunter: System is working

If NBA commissioner David Stern is looking for a major overhaul in the collective bargaining agreement, he's going to have to convince Billy Hunter, executive director of the NBA Players Association, that it's necessary.

"As far as I'm concerned, the system has worked," Hunter said late Wednesday.

Then he made his own suggestion about how to ease the financial problems of the league's small-market teams.

"One of the principle issues is that some owners are having a hard time with cash flow," Hunter said. "I don't see why that automatically means more give-backs from the players. It seems to me a new revenue-sharing plan among the owners is one of the things they have to look at. Then you wouldn't be looking to the players every time there's a shortfall."

The current labor pact, signed in July, 2005, will expire in June, 2011. No substantive talks with the league on a subsequent deal will begin until after July 1, Hunter said, because union president Derek Fisher and other board members are involved in the playoffs. The current system guarantees the players 57 percent of basketball-related revenue (BRI).

Stern has not said specifically what the owners are seeking in the next CBA, but everything from a reduction in the BRI cut to the maximum length and size of contracts has been floated. In any case, the union has no interest in tearing up the existing deal before it expires.

Hunter told Bloomberg News he would welcome teams "completely
opening their books" before the sides begin negotiations on a new CBA. Stern said Thursday he's fine with that.

"It's fine what he said," Stern said Thursday before Game 3
between the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls. "That's what I told
him this morning when I called him. We have a good relationship. We
represent our constituents the best we possibly can. We're looking
forward to starting those discussions sometime this summer."

In a meeting with members of the Associated Press Sports Editors group at the NBA's Manhattan offices, Stern addressed concerns that several teams are facing significant financial losses this season, and said that the $200 million borrowed by 12 teams from a league-run line of credit was not an indication of fiscal distress.

"We have no teams that are in any trouble," Stern said, according to Newsday. "Our owners are substantial people who are used to, in many cases, funding operating losses. It's not their preference and we're striving hard to increase revenues collectively and to ultimately have a collective-bargaining agreement and a revenue-sharing agreement that allows every club, if well-managed, to be profitable."

Whenever the two sides finally meet, the league is going to have to demonstrate that its financial state demands player concessions. After distributing a memo to all 30 teams in February to be prepared for projected league revenues -- and thereby the player-payroll salary cap -- to drop next season, Stern recently announced that a modest increase in league revenue is expected.

"The league just had the third-largest attendance in its history, but revenues are flat because owners had to discount tickets," Hunter said. "I'm a little confused. With all that, flat is good in this economic climate."

Hunter declined to outline what the players might be seeking in the new deal, but a source said repealing the age limit, reducing the amount of player salaries held in escrow, loosening rules concerning restricted free agents and changing the league's disciplinary system top the list.

The biggest points of contention are likely to be the age limit and the disciplinary system. The current deal requires a player to be 19 -- and one year removed from high school in the U.S. -- before he is draft-eligible. There has been talk that the league would like to raise the limit by another year, but one union source said "90 percent" of the current players are against it now.

Hunter regrets agreeing to it. "It was a way of closing negotiations the last time," he said. "It was the only thing left to get a deal done. We capitulated."

The players, the source said, also want suspensions handed down by the league to be reviewed by an independent arbitrator before they go into effect, the system used in Major League Baseball. Under the current NBA system, any suspension of 12 games or less can't be appealed and all suspensions go into effect immediately.

Hunter also dismissed the threat of another labor lockout by the owners. The 1998-99 season was reduced to 50 games when owners suspended operations for six months, practically forcing the players to agree to their terms. Agent David Falk, in discussions about a book he released this winter, said the owners are prepared to impose a two-year lockout this time to get the players to capitulate to a drastically revised labor pact.

"That would be catastrophic," Hunter said. "I don't think this league could withstand another lockout."

Ric Bucher is a senior writer covering professional basketball for ESPN The Magazine. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.