Originally created 08/07/98

NBA labor talks break off abruptly



NEW YORK -- NBA owners added an unexpected twist to the lockout -- a walkout.

Commissioner David Stern and several owners abruptly left the labor talks Thursday after hearing the players' latest proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement -- their first offer since April 1.

"It blew my mind," said Karl Malone, attending his first negotiating session. "If I was in Arkansas or Alaska and I read it in the paper, I would have called somebody a liar. I would have said there's no way that happened. But sitting here watching it, it was unbelievable."

The meeting, attended by more than a dozen players and six owners, lasted about 90 minutes before the group broke for lunch. When talks resumed, the players spent about 15 minutes outlining a new proposal involving revenue sharing, a concession on the rookie salary scale and mandatory 10 percent raises.

The meeting ended when union attorney Jeffrey Kessler told the owners they stood a good chance of losing two cases before the National Labor Relations Board and arbitrator John Feerick.

"We came to negotiate, not to be lectured on legal proceedings and their ultimate outcome," Stern said. "The good dialogue of the morning was dissipated by the proposal and remarks in the afternoon."

Thursday's meeting was the first formal bargaining session since June 22, when talks broke off after only 30 minutes. The owners imposed a lockout eight days later.

The players' latest offer came as somewhat of a surprise, since union director Billy Hunter and deputy commissioner Russ Granik said Wednesday that no new formal proposals were expected.

The sides remain far apart on economic issues, especially on what percentage of basketball-related income (BRI) should be devoted to player salaries. The owners had the right to toss out the old labor agreement if salaries rose above 52 percent of BRI, and that number jumped to 57 percent last season.

In their proposal of April 1, the players offered to slow future salary cap growth if the BRI number exceeded 63 percent.

But they deleted that formula from Thursday's proposal, replacing it with a modification of the 20 percent raise rule. They also adjusted the three-year rookie wage scale to include a right-of-first-refusal for the fourth year, and proposed that teams pool local television revenue and split the money.

"Like in baseball, the owners want the players to pay instead of having revenue sharing, and that's why we're in the unfortunate position we're in today," Kessler said.

With no new talks scheduled, the next labor fight will come before Feerick.

The arbitrator would like to schedule a hearing next week on the union's grievance on behalf of some 220 players with guaranteed contracts who are not being paid during the lockout.

The union also has filed an unfair labor complaint with the NLRB, charging the owners with illegally imposing a lockout.

"Essentially, their strategy is going to be to litigate for a while and hope they can achieve some litigation victory rather than sit down and bargain," Granik said. "We were very disappointed. We made absolutely no progress."

Under the collective bargaining agreement that expired June 30, most contracts were limited to 20 percent salary increases each season. In their new proposal, the players asked for minimum raises of 10 percent with maximum raises tied to the percentage of growth in league revenues.

Free agents signing under the Larry Bird exception would be bound by the same rule.

"They laid their proposal on the table, and the owners looked at us and said, `Do we have to sit here and be insulted?' " said Stern, who surprised many in the room by showing up with a beard. "So we thought that the best thing, in order to preserve any semblance of a bargaining balance, would be to end the session right there."

Hunter plans to travel to five cities during the next three weeks to brief players on the status of negotiations. He said he was open to resuming talks at any time, but he also accused Stern and the owners of staging their walkout.

Union president Patrick Ewing and executive board member Dikembe Mutombo said the owners did the same thing in negotiations several years ago.

"I thought it was a charade, more acting than anything else because it was just too spontaneous," Hunter said. "No sooner had we got (the new proposal) out than they were up and walking out of the room. It was funny."

It was "like a 4-year-old saying I don't want to play anymore and I'm going home," said Malone, who cut short a fishing and hunting trip to Alaska to join the talks. "Some of them didn't just hop right up. Some of them weren't running to get our that door.

"Some, like all of us, wanted to keep talking about this thing and get it worked out. So, I was kind of shocked that mature men would just run out."

Granik denied that the walkout was planned.