Players, then owners declare unity

Amid rumors of a rift among NBA owners, fueled by an email from players' union president Derek Fisher to his colleagues, commissioner David Stern declared "virtual unanimity" after meeting with the owners for more than four hours Thursday in Dallas.

Stern said the "vast majority" of the owners remain firmly in favor of a hard salary cap, a major sticking point in the negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Sources confirmed to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard that there were disagreements among owners.

Stern, however, adamantly denied that there is a split among the owners.

"I don't know what the basis of Derek's belief is," Stern said. "But I can tell you, having just come out of the meeting, the vast majority of owners are indeed in favor of a 'hard cap system,' as Derek refers to it. Having said that, they authorized the committee to be ready to negotiate on all points, and the committee is."

Meanwhile, NBA players will remain unified and calm in what could be a lengthy pursuit of a labor agreement, Fisher vowed Thursday in Las Vegas.

About 40 players got an update on collective bargaining talks from Fisher and executive director Billy Hunter in what Fisher described as "a very colorful and engaging meeting" at a hotel. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith also spoke to the players, who were mostly in town to play in an Impact Basketball academy league.

"There is not the fracture and the separation amongst our group that in some ways has been reported," said Fisher, the Los Angeles Lakers point guard. "We just want to continue to reiterate that point."

The players echoed their leaders' stance, promising they won't allow the union to splinter when the players start missing paychecks in a few weeks. NBPA members have been educated for several years about the steps necessary to survive a long lockout, and Fisher said the union will continue to protect the rights of players who sign overseas this fall.

"I've never seen this union as strong as we are collectively right now," said Boston Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal, among the few remaining players who participated in the 1998-99 labor dispute. "A lot of our young guys are wide-eyed when they see the numbers at first, but now they're educated. We don't need to make a temporary, emotional decision. We need to make a long-term decision for a bigger purpose."

Before the NBA's owners and players' union returned to their respective corners on Thursday -- the owners in Dallas, the players in Las Vegas -- to regroup following Tuesday's negotiating session that ended with the lockout still very much intact, Fisher sent out an email to the players asking for solidarity.

The email, first printed by SI.com, challenged the faction of player agents who wish to decertify the union, and it also hinted that there may be some division growing between the league's 29 owners.

"The most recent meetings in New York were effective," Fisher wrote. "What you have been told by your agents, representatives and the media is probably speculative and inaccurate.

"What actually happened in those meetings was discussion, brainstorming and a sharing of options by both sides. The turning point this past Tuesday was not a disagreement between the players and the owners. It was actually a fundamental divide between the owners internally. They could not agree with each other on specific points of the deal and therefore it caused conflict within the league and its owners."

However, on Thursday deputy commissioner Adam Silver echoed Stern in refuting Fisher's assertion that owners were divided. Silver said that owners' discussions were fluid and that varying proposals did not reflect any fundamental rift among their ranks.

"From the beginning, we were never caught up with the label of a hard cap," Silver said. "What we've said from day one is we need a system where all 30 teams can compete for a championship and we have absolute unanimity among our owners on that principle. So while we've discussed over the last several hours, and the last several weeks, different concepts to achieve that result, there is absolute agreement, and it's a complete fiction coming from somewhere that there isn't among our owners."

Owners and players initially found reason for optimism during Tuesday's meetings. Stern and Peter Holt, the head of the owners' executive committee, felt that the players' proposal to take 52 or 53 percent of basketball-related income, compared to 57 under the previous agreement, was basically fair, sources said.

Owners were seriously considering coming off of their demand for a salary freeze and would allow players' future earnings to be tied into the league's revenue growth, a critical point for players. The owners also were willing to allow the players to maintain their current salaries, without rollbacks, sources said.

But when the owners left the players to meet among themselves for around three hours, Cleveland's Dan Gilbert and Phoenix's Robert Sarver expressed their dissatisfaction with many of the points, sources said. The sources said that the Knicks' James Dolan and the Lakers' Jerry Buss were visibly annoyed by the hardline demands of Gilbert and Sarver.

On Thursday, players discussed union decertification during their Las Vegas meeting, but Hunter emphasized the union believes such a drastic step isn't an imminent strategy despite behind-the-scenes calls for the move from several agents. NFL players dissolved their union to file an antitrust lawsuit against the league earlier this year.

"We've kind of dispelled the notion that the players were not together and they were not in support of the union," Hunter said. "If the owners were looking for a break in the ranks ... I think that notion has been dispelled."

Fisher also rejected the notion that the NBPA is waiting for a ruling on a charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board for unfair bargaining practices, although Hunter said he plans to travel to Washington next week in hopes of getting an expedited ruling.

"Sometimes it's implied that we're waiting, posturing, sitting on the sideline and waiting for something to happen favorable for us with the NLRB," Fisher said. "That's just not the case. It's part of this process, but we're still taking action. We have to negotiate a deal, and that's the only way we'll get what's fair for these guys."

If NBA owners are searching for cracks in the players' unity, as Fisher and Hunter believe, the union attempted to provide a visual answer. Over 30 players stood together behind Fisher and Hunter at a brief news conference, wearing identical gray T-shirts with one large word in yellow: "STAND."

"All the agendas that might be pushed by different groups, they don't have a way in as long as we stand shoulder to shoulder," Fisher said.

Earlier in the week, Fisher used his letter to challenge the motives of the agents seeking to disband the NBPA.

"What would be appreciated by the 400-plus players would be the support of our agents and constructive ideas, suggestions and solutions that are in our best interests," wrote Fisher. "Not the push for a drastic move that leaves their players without a union, without pensions, without health care. We just aren't there."

Broussard and ESPN.com's Henry Abbott reported that five of the league's most influential player agents -- Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Mark Bartelstein, Jeff Schwartz and Dan Fegan -- spoke Monday about the process of decertifying the union.

With the lockout reaching 2½ months and Hunter telling reporters Tuesday that he has already cautioned players to expect to miss up to half of the upcoming season, Fisher made another move in addition to the email to try to inspire trust and patience among his players.

According to Broussard, NFLPA executive director Smith spoke to the players Thursday in Las Vegas at the behest of Fisher.

Sources said that his message centered on the pros and cons of decertification.

The union had hoped that Smith's story of the NFL players enduring a 4½-month lockout before securing a season-saving deal will convince NBA players that the same outcome can be achieved if they, too, stay unified.

A source who was at the meeting told Broussard that both Fisher and Smith stressed the importance of being unified, and players took the message to heart.
Some players who had been on the fence about decertifying learned that they had been misinformed by agents who had said that the union wasn't even considering decertification, the source said. The union clarified that decertification has always been an option, but it's not something the leadership is considering right now because they have a plan in place and progress is being made, according to the source.

"I get reports that the union is coming out of their meeting today unified," Stern said Thursday. "We think that's a good thing. We would like to negotiate with a strong union that's capable of delivering a deal. I think that's a very positive step."

The only action taken at the owners meeting was ratifying a five-year deal with the league's referees.

The big question now, as it has been throughout the lockout, is whether the referees will have games to officiate when the season is scheduled to begin.

"That's a really good question," Stern said. "It depends upon our negotiation with the players. The clock is ticking, but it hasn't struck midnight yet. We have time to do what has to be done and we'd like to do it, actually."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.