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NBA owners, union: unified they aren't

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – When the NBA owners and players joined for a brief, acrimonious meeting on All-Star weekend a year ago, Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver had a big idea: Why don’t the commissioner and the union reps leave the room, and let the owners and players speak directly on the matter of a collective-bargaining agreement?

The suggestion was met with resounding rejection from Players Association executive director Billy Hunter, but commissioner David Stern spared his anger until union officials and players left the room. With the rest of the NBA’s owners watching, sources told Yahoo! Sports that Stern berated Sarver with an expletive-riddled diatribe demanding that he never, ever ask him to leave one of his negotiating sessions again. This was the Stern mostly hidden from the public eye: belligerent, controlling and forever staking his territory.

Several owners believed Stern’s tantrum was directed beyond Sarver and at the changing guard of NBA ownership: younger, brasher and with far more money invested into franchises than predecessors who had been mostly willing to let Stern be the driving force in labor talks. The two sides will meet again on Friday in Los Angeles, and rhetoric of doomsday labor shutdowns promises to rise again.

For now, it isn’t only Hunter at odds with his constituents but Stern, too. For years, Stern’s run the NBA like a dictatorship, forever squashing rebellion and isolating dissenting voices within ownership ranks. No more. Twenty years ago, old-guard owners like Washington’s Abe Pollin, Detroit’s Bill Davidson and Utah’s Larry Miller entrusted Stern to dictate engagement with the union. Now, there’s a different breed of owner who’s getting far less return on their far bigger investments into teams.

Now, Stern has an army of owners clamoring for radical change that will assuredly need a long lockout – perhaps even the loss of the full 2011-12 season – to ramrod such nuclear options as contract rollbacks, hard salary caps and franchise tags on the union. Stern doesn’t want his legacy sullied with a bloody labor conflict, but these owners want historic cost containments and they’re riding Stern hard to deliver them.

For the first time, Stern has so much in common with the man sitting across the bargaining table. Hunter has had declining support with the most powerful player agents who believe he hasn’t surrounded himself with the best possible legal advice, nor been able to rally the rank-and-file union members to stand together and fight back on ownership’s relentless calls for givebacks.

Several of the top player agents told Yahoo! Sports they have grave concerns about Hunter’s ability to spare the union unprecedented givebacks in these negotiations. Most are inclined to invoke the most nuclear option of all – decertification of the union. This could send the labor battle into a protracted and punishing court fight.

“Do I feel comfortable with Billy Hunter at the table with David Stern?” one of the NBA’s elite player agents said. “No, I don’t. We’re so overmatched that it isn’t funny. And the players don’t have the [courage] to hang in there very long without a paycheck. The only thing that the league fears is decertification. They don’t want to go down that road. They just want to negotiate as long as they can because they believe the players will crumble.

“The owners want to destroy the players in this deal. They want the whole system to change. We have one bullet and it’s decertification.”

Within the agent ranks, there’s much criticism on Hunter’s ability to rally players and take the fight to the commissioner. There’s criticism of Hunter’s willingness to use the most powerful agents to get their players on board, to share the burden of uniting a union that’s never matched the fortitude of the NFL’s and Major League Baseball’s players.

“I’ve supported the union in the past, tried the other way and each time the players’ rights have been eroded,” another prominent agent told Yahoo! Sports. “To me, I think we need to decertify.

“Stern doesn’t have the new owners in his back pocket like he did the ones before. These owners are different. It’s easy to go out and start wars, but to have the strength and fortitude to see it through is a whole different game. Wait until people are suffering consequences in this, and we’ll see how the owners who are talking tough on the players will be when they’re going through the ups and downs of the battle.”

The rules of engagement are changing fast, and suddenly the faces of this labor fight – David Stern and Billy Hunter – are fighting to hold onto control, to hold onto a battle that could consume the both of them.

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