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NBA, Players at a critical crossroads

There are many parallels between the early days of the NHL's 2004-05 lockout and what the NBA is enduring right now and Thursday may have reached the proverbial crossroads.

The NBA on Friday announced training camps have been "postponed indefinitely" and canceled the first week of preseason games, as well. None of this should come as a surprise because, in the grand scheme, training camp and even early preseason games that involve limited minutes to star players and starters are insigificant.

What's more important to both sides is to preserve opening night on Nov. 1.

But what's also important right now is to acknowledge this as the ignition stage for potential disaster and consider the risk that comes with bluffing for another few months.

Oh, there will be blood on everyone's hands if this starts to cut into the real games come November, when television revenue comes in and the paychecks begin to go out. But while David Stern and Adam Silver are protected by the armor of the owners' will, Billy Hunter, even more than Derek Fisher, will be in the cross hairs and left to answer a difficult question many angry players will ask when the smoke finally clears:

If you knew you were going to eventually negotiate a hard cap, why didn't you do it in September?

Amid the volley of rhetoric through most of the NBA's collective bargaining process over the past few months, perhaps now, as reality sets in, has George Santayana's famous words silenced the nonsense.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it."

Or, as it has evolved today, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

The NBA has studied the NHL's "flex cap" system enough to include it among a few concepts they have presented to the NBPA as a model for the new CBA. If the union has put any time into studying this system, they should also focus on the backstory. And take heed.

In September of 2003, former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow told me he was a firm believer in an "open marketplace" -- in other words, a world without a hard salary cap -- and felt that was "the healthiest environment" for a league that, team-by-team, was seeing massive revenue losses, a terrible imbalance of payrolls and a host of awful contracts to underachieving players.

Goodenow made it crystal clear: his union would "never negotiate" a hard cap. The message was relayed through the summer of 2004, when the players rallied around their union and struck defiant poses. Solidarity ruled the summer and this group was ready for a fight to protect their salary potential.

It should be noted here that Goodenow's NHLPA was one of the strongest in pro sports, perhaps only second to the MLBPA, which, at the time, was run by Goodenow's friend, Don Fehr (who, coincidentally, now runs the NHLPA). The NHL players were well prepared for a lockout and Goodenow dug in as it became reality, as predicted, in Sept. 2004. Goodenow needled NHL commissioner Gary Bettman by regularly referring to the work stoppage as "Gary's lockout."

But once November arrived and regular season games started falling off the calendar, players who didn't want to leave their families behind to play in Europe -- and those who angrily came home after those teams failed to make good on their payments -- started getting anxious. Powerful agents, absent of important commissions, started to gripe and conspire. (Sound familiar?)

And Bettman, with a $300 million warchest in place to help teams get through a long winter, didn't flinch.

In early December, Goodenow then made a bold move that was a cocktail of compromise and desperation: the NHLPA sent a proposal to the NHL that was based on a soft cap system, but, in an olive branch to owners crying about finances, offered a 24 percent rollback on all current contracts.

The players, who at this point just wanted to get back on the ice, were furious with Goodenow's sacrifice. But it got even worse when Bettman and the owners rejected the deal and responded with a proposal that gladly accepted the rollback, but also included a hard cap system. (Again, does any of this sound familiar?)

Over the next two months, the union started to splinter, as powerful agents and some of the league's top stars started conspiring through backchannel discussions with owners to come up with a deal. Goodenow was castrated by this end-around, but what can not be overlooked is that at the same time his mother had taken ill. She passed away later that summer.

There was one last attempt to salvage a season in early February, when the sides, motivated by the backchannel talks, returned to the table. It was then that the union began negotiating a hard cap -- something Goodenow said he would never do -- but almost $10 million higher than the NBA's proposal. (Is this familiarity thing getting redundant yet?)

It was at this point that Goodenow completely lost the faith of his constituents, who were now enraged about losing half of their salary that season and the potential of losing all of it with a lost season.

"If we're going to accept a cap," former Islanders captain, and NHLPA player rep, Adrian Aucoin said to me at the time, "then why the hell haven't we done it sooner?"

Matthew Barnaby, currently an ESPN analyst who at the time was on the Chicago Blackhawks, expressed frustration in "playing poker and to have someone call your bluff" and wondered why this deal couldn't have gotten done in the summer.

As Derek Fisher emerged from the tony Upper East Side hotel Thursday in Manhattan, he wore a look I've seen before. Trevor Linden wore it during those tumultuous days before the NHL lost the entire season in 2004-05. It was the look of confliction and frustration and the look of a man who was starting to see how this is going to end, but wasn't sure how it was going to get there.

"We'll keep working at it until we find some solutions," he said with a deadpan expression that was notably quite different than the anger he showed after last week's meeting or the emotion he poured into his letter to NBA players the week before.

Yes, there is a lot at stake here; for him, for the players and, most especially, for Hunter, who conspicuously stayed off to the side while Fisher addressed the media. Hunter did chat with a few reporters, but slipped into his limo without making any statements. He has been quoted by others who reached out to him, but Hunter clearly left it to Fisher to represent the players with monotone comments.

"There's always reason to talk," Fisher said. "We've said that the entire time and we'll keep at it. We'll keep communicating with our players, making sure they're aware of what's going on and that we're all on the same page. We'll keep talking until we figure it out, until we get a fair deal done."

Reality is this: a majority of fans, who can't relate to bickering over other people's millions, don't care about what defines a fair deal, just as long as it doesn't result in lost games. And even then, the travesty isn't losing games as much as it is the realization that those games didn't have to be lost.

For instance, the NHL finally agreed on a new CBA in July 2005. The deal not only included a hard cap system, but also a 24 percent rollback; both parameters that were proposed by the league eight months prior -- with plenty of time to negotiate and save at least half of a season -- and quickly rejected by the union.

As for Goodenow? He resigned days after the new deal was ratified. He remains the only union leader in North American professional sports history to oversee an entire season of lost wages.

Despite all of the similarities, there is one critical difference between the NHL and NBA labor situations that allow a twinge of optimism. While there was undeniable acrimony between the NHL and the NHLPA, there is a palpable sense of respect between the NBA and the NBPA. Aside from the normal legal posturing that involves dueling lawsuits and NLRB complaints, the fact that the sides have talked on a regular basis should be encouraging.

But now, as they reach the critical crossroads between saving a season or defiantly holding it ransom, where do they go from here?


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