NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said Wednesday that if he "had to bet on it," he would wager that the entire 2011-12 season would be wiped out by the lockout.
"We're $800 million apart per year," Hunter told about 200 people during a seminar at a conference in Baltimore of the National Bar Association, an organization of predominantly African-American lawyers and judges.
The union chief said NBA commissioner David Stern was being limited in negotiations by hard-line owners.
"The circumstances have changed among his constituency," said Hunter, the executive director since 1996. "In the last six or seven years, there is a new group of owners to come in who paid a premium for their franchises, and what they're doing is kind of holding his feet to the fire."
Because negotiators are dug in, Hunter said "something has to happen that both of us can use as leverage to save face."
Asked by a conference attendee whether there would be a 2011-12 season, he replied: "If I had to bet on it at this moment, I would probably say no."
The NBA had no immediate response after being apprised of Hunter's comments, spokesman Tim Frank said.
The lockout began July 1. The NBA believes the economic model needs to change because, it says, 22 of its 30 teams are unprofitable. Among other changes, owners want to significantly reduce the players' share of basketball revenue from 57 percent.
"We agreed to go from 57 to 54," Hunter said.
Hunter was chatty and informal in his comments, encouraging audience members to ask difficult questions and saying he would be as candid as he could. The seminar's moderator said he would discourage questions about Hunter's private negotiating strategy. But Hunter commented on a variety of subjects, including a report — denied by the NBA — that Stern makes as much as $23 million a year.
"I think it's somewhat ironic. It's inconsistent to me" if Stern makes that much, Hunter said. While the NBA won't disclose executives' salaries, the $23 million has been disputed by the league and in media reports.
During the seminar, Hunter sat on a couch in a downtown hotel ballroom next to NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith. Last month, NFL players settled a 41/2-month labor dispute with owners.
"Billy is where I was two years ago," Smith said. The NFL labor battle "was a very long and extremely public fight. Our young men demonstrated a tremendous amount of resolve," Smith said.
Hunter said NBA players were also united. Of players' signing deals with overseas teams, he said: "I don't encourage them to go. We're not going to stand in their way.'
On Wednesday, Jordan Farmar of the New Jersey Nets became the latest player to head for the European leagues, joining former Nets teammates Deron Williams and Sasha Vujacic, according to multiple reports.
The NBA on Tuesday filed claims against the players association in federal court and with the National Relations Labor Relations Board. The league says the union has not been negotiating in good faith.
"We just don't have as much time as the NFL did," Stern told the Associated Press. "If the union sort of continued to drag its feet and then pursued its preferred decertification strategy, and if the same 41/2 months went by, we'd be well into our season."
The league said its latest proposal would keep average salaries of at least $5 million.
Hunter said owners initially demanded that "we give them back a billion dollars a year," and then it came down to $900 million.
"A month and a half ago, we gave them a proposal that we would give them back $100 million per year," the union chief said. "The gap is far between us."