As soon as T.J. Ford’s inbounds pass to Dahntay Jones was tipped away, the final seven-tenths of a second on the clock elapsed and so did any sense of decorum.
“Why would you throw the f—ing ball that way?” Jones shouted at Ford, his Indiana Pacers teammate last season, before extracting the gum from his mouth and firing it across the court.
Ford raised his arms and shouted back at Jones, and then Jones did the same as they walked off the court sharing looks of disdain.
The incident was a snapshot Wednesday from this hastily assembled “league,” put together by trainer Joe Abunassar for the purpose of giving several dozen locked-out NBA players a chance to prepare for a season that may or may not come.
And yet it was also easy to wonder if it would foreshadow a scene here Thursday, when union chief executive Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher address about 75 players, informing them where negotiations stand after Tuesday’s unfruitful meeting in New York and beating back the call for decertification from a group of high-powered NBA agents.
If players leave the room like Jones and Ford left the court, divided about their negotiating strategy, it will further embolden the owners, whose positions — publicly — thus far appear to be anchored in concrete.
“I know the owners are hoping (division) happens, because any time there’s turmoil on one side of the negotiations, it hurts you,” said guard Roger Mason Jr., a member of the union’s executive committee who spent last season with the Knicks. “So I’m sure they’d love for us to have dissention among us. (Thursday) it’s our job to let the players know exactly what’s going on.
“Obviously, agents are calling for (decertification). We’re not blind to that. We just need to be on the same page. We don’t need a contingent of agents pushing for one thing and then the union pushing for another. We need to be on the same page.”
With training camps slated to begin within two weeks, the season six weeks away and scant progress in negotiations since the lockout began on July 1, several players here acknowledged that the uncertainty about the season ahead is becoming palpable.
At this time of year, rookies, free agents and journeymen are typically working out at the team’s facilities, getting to know each other and getting ready for training camp. Established veterans and stars are getting ready to join them.
Now, they may have to consider whether to look to Europe, Asia or elsewhere outside the United States to play this season.
“Some people are getting antsy, but I think that they’re not straying from what our union’s message is,” Jones said. “We all get antsy. We all want to play. We all want to get into our daily routine. But it’s not to the point where guys are being rebels and will just do anything to play.”
One bit of palace intrigue is just how much pull is exerted by the group of agents who, according to reports by Yahoo! and ESPN, are pushing for decertification. Between them, Bill Duffy, Arn Tellum, Mark Bartelstein, Dan Fegan and Jeff Schwartz represent close to the 30 percent of NBA players required to sign a petition that would put decertification to a vote.
Yet two player reps who are represented by Bartelstein — Jones and Phoenix’s Jared Dudley — said they are not in favor of decertification. Dudley said he has discussed the matter with Bartelstein.
“Right now, I would tell Mark, I’m with Billy,” Dudley said. “I just don’t understand why Billy and the agents can’t sit down and just do the pros and cons. To cut agents out, I think would be foolish. That’s what they’re paid to do — negotiate. I don’t know why we can’t be on the same side.”
Said Jones of his agent: “He has his own opinion, and we have to trust in our union.”
Dudley sensed that the same type of tensions were present among the owners, but they had been kept private — in part due to commissioner David Stern’s pledge to heavily fine any team official for making public comments.
For every hawkish owner, who would not mind seeing the season canceled — Suns owner Robert Sarver among them — there would be one who would want to find common ground.
“You can’t tell me (Jerry) Buss and (James) Dolan want to sit out the whole year,” Dudley said, referring to the owners of the Lakers and Knicks.
Though they might be preparing to miss an entire season, the players who took the court Wednesday made it clear that they did not want to. The games, played several miles south of The Strip at the Impact Basketball training center, took place in front of several dozen fans. But the players did not need crowded arenas or TV cameras to create a spark.
Clippers guard Mo Williams threw Ford to the court to prevent a breakaway layup in the final seconds, a play that might have been ruled a flagrant foul if it were an NBA game. Veteran Melvin Ely, unhappy that he had been poked in the eye, knocked over a cooler filled with sport drink. Even mild-mannered Coby Karl, the son of Nuggets coach George Karl, picked up a technical foul for firing the ball the length of the court after a call.
The carping was not limited toward officials. There was plenty of barking at other players — in Jones’ case, one on his team.
“I don’t like to lose at no level,” Jones explained later.
Jones was referring to matters on the court, but his resolve — and others as well — will soon be tested off it.