Having already lost, combined, more than a half-billion dollars in salaries, scores of NBA players began converging on New York yesterday to prepare for a historic vote that could decide the fate of the current season.
With NBA commissioner David Stern's recommendation to cancel the season facing a vote of the league's Board of Governors tomorrow, the 430 members of the players association were summoned to New York to vote today on the league's latest proposal.
Union director Billy Hunter said the 19-member negotiating committee, which met yesterday, will urge the players to reject the "final offer" that was sent by the league to the union and its players last week.
"We're expecting them to vote in support of the position promoted by the negotiating committee," Hunter said. "We called the vote because everyone suggested we call a vote. We want to get it out there and get it over with because we think the message that we have to send to the owners is that our players are still unified."
How unified remains to be seen as each union member will have an individual vote on the negotiating committee's recommendation -- a power the bargaining committee refused to grant individual players until this week.
A major factor will be how the vote will be conducted; a simple show of hands could leave some union members intimidated by members of the bargaining committee, while a secret ballot would result in players likely voting their true feelings.
"I know we're unified," Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, a member of the bargaining committee, said on ESPN last night.
Added Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo, also a member of the committee: "The deal is not good for us, and we're not willing to play for this deal."
If the players accept the committee's recommendation, the season is likely to be lost. If the players vote to reject the committee's recommendation, the union would then likely vote on the owners' final offer. A simple majority will decide the outcome.
If that offer is accepted, a 45- 50-game season could begin next month.
Until this season, the NBA was the only major professional sports league not to have lost a single game to a work stoppage.
Today's vote could determine whether the NBA becomes the first major sports league to lose an entire season and, following a brief meeting with the union on Monday, the league is not optimistic. The session on Monday was the first time the two sides had met face-to-face since Dec. 27.
"They presented to us what they called the union's final offer to the NBA on economic issues," said NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "It is not in any way significantly different, at least in my judgment, from where the union has been in prior offers, which is very, very far apart from the final proposal we gave to the players association last week."
Asked whether the two sides could attempt to salvage the season beyond the Thursday deadline imposed by the league, Granik said: "I think the owners' view is that if we cancel the season, that means the season is canceled."
There have been signs of both sides moving closer in negotiations since the lockout began on July 1. The union has agreed to a cap on maximum salaries, an area the players association was adamantly against during early talks.
But while the league would like to limit the salaries of players with seven to nine years of experience to 30 percent of the salary cap (or a maximum of $10.5 million), the union is seeking a deal worth $11 million.
The area where the two sides appear to differ most is on the percentage of revenue devoted to salaries over the six years of the contract. League owners paid out 57 percent (or nearly $1 billion) in basketball-related income last season, and would like to bring that down with a system in which gradual increases would build to 54 percent in the final year of the six-year deal.
The union is seeking gradual increases in revenue that would provide players 57 percent in the final year of the contract.
Stern has said that if the season is canceled, there will be a league next season that would possibly include replacement players.
"We're looking for people who share the spirit of partnership that got us to where we have gotten," Stern said. "And clearly, based on the union's latest proposal to us, there's nobody there that shares that partnership at this time."
Pub Date: 1/06/99