Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association,...

Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, holds a press briefing following a meeting between team owners and the NBA player's union. (June 21, 2011) Credit: AP

Here's the answer to the ongoing NBA labor battle: Let the players hold a secret ballot.

The lockout could have ended and the owners could have claimed their victory Friday night had Billy Hunter and the union stayed at the table when the most contentious issue of collective bargaining -- the split of Basketball Related Income -- re-entered what had been very positive, smile-inducing, momentum-building negotiations.

But the Friday talks that began with Hunter saying the union would "spend as much time as we possibly need in the hopes of making a deal'' were abruptly halted when the NBA once again presented its scenario of a 50-50 BRI split. Upon leaving, Hunter said the union leaders "made it clear we could not sell a 50-50 deal to our membership.''

To which we say: Why not have a secret-ballot vote, just to be completely sure?

"I'm afraid of what the answer would be,'' one longtime NBA player agent told Newsday when asked the same question.

Even agents who have tried to influence the proceedings with warnings to hold the line at 53 percent -- a 4-percent concession from the previous CBA -- have started to find their messages aren't reaching the lower 90 percent salary-wise.

You can understand Hunter's concern. It's almost certain that anything presented to the players would be ratified. But the vote should be done by secret ballot -- in 1999, players ratified the deal to end that lockout by an awkward show of hands -- because very few players would want to appear as if they were breaking ranks or caving in.

Remember what Wizards center JaVale McGee said two weeks ago after he walked out of a union meeting in Beverly Hills: "Some guys in there are ready to fold.'' McGee was quickly rebuked and said his comment -- which was recorded by several reputable members of the NBA media -- was misrepresented.

Samardo Samuels, an undrafted, unheralded young forward with the Cavaliers, clearly is one who isn't interested in staying on message. He just wants to go back to work. "50/50 sound good to me whats the problem,'' Samuels wrote on his Twitter account Friday night. "It's church money anyway.''

Coincidentally, the owners also had one of their own go rogue on Friday. Heat owner Micky Arison had a thread of tweets that, in summary, suggested he wasn't one of the hard-line owners pushing for 50-50. But there is no question that the small-market owners, who want a more balanced economic system to make up for millions in operating losses, outnumber the big markets.

And so maybe, after surrendering the effort to get an extremely restrictive luxury-tax system, the NBA again tried to force the 50-50 ultimatum that caused talks to blow up two weeks ago. But by the union storming away this time, the owners could say they were never given the chance to consider a 51-49 or even a 51.5-48.5 compromise. And so this time they could show clean hands to the media and fans.

"Billy said he would not go below 52 when he left,'' deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. "He didn't say, 'Do you want to split the difference?' He said, 'I will not go below 52.' . . . The negotiation ended when he said that.''

Perhaps Hunter is merely trying to squeeze a little more sweat out of David Stern and the owners because he had the union prepared to survive at least one month of lost games. The union sent out checks in August to the membership from the escrow surplus off last season's BRI. Mid-level players received as much as $500,000. In November, the union is prepared to cut more checks from a war chest it built up during the last three seasons off merchandising revenue. Low-end players will get at least $100,000.

But the coffers dry up after that, which is why we will have basketball in December.

And we will have basketball because no matter how much Stern tried to resurrect the notion that the renegade power agents still are influencing the union's stance, the players will mostly listen to that voice inside their heads telling them that they are supposed to be playing basketball right now.