Players united against hard salary cap

One by one, 33 NBA players filed into a small conference room and dutifully lined up around a podium.

Wearing gray T-shirts with the silhouettes of basketball players underscored by the word "Stand" in yellow block letters, the players waited for two men in suits — union president Derek Fisher and chief executive Billy Hunter — to take their place in front of them.

The message was clear before Hunter or Fisher uttered a word: United we stand.

The union had been on its back foot in recent days, fighting back a push by some agents to decertify — a marked change in strategy — and, more ominously, a crisis of confidence stemming from last week’s futile negotiations in New York.

And so, the players association went on the offensive.

Fisher sent an email to every player in the league which suggested, among other things, that it was the owners who were showing cracks. A 2 1/2-hour meeting at a luxury hotel was equal parts PowerPoint and passionate pleas for togetherness, and began with an address from NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith.

And, of course, there were the T-shirts.

"I think we’ve kind of dispelled the notion that the players were not together and that they were not in support of the union," Hunter said from the podium.

The players who stood behind him were mostly those who are working out here during an informal league, trying to stay in shape in the event there is a training camp — or a season.

They were veterans like Chris Duhon, Mo Williams, Rashard Lewis, Roger Mason and Ryan Gomes, but there were many more young players like Iman Shumpert, Samardo Samuels and Derrick Caracter as well.

One of the more impassioned speakers was Jermaine O’Neal, the veteran center who told the young players he remembered what it was like as a teenager during the 1998 lockout, when he stood silently in a meeting room in Manhattan listening to then-union president Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan speak.

O’Neal, who has announced he will retire after this season, said it was important to make the young players at the end of the bench, the ones who face the most uncertainty, to feel engaged.

"I was scared to death, an 18-year-old from South Carolina coming to New York," O’Neal said. "We have to make sure we reach out to [the young players] with a text, with a phone call, to make sure they know what’s happening. It’s important that they know because this could affect them for the next five or 10 years."

That theme of togetherness was not exclusive to Las Vegas. While the players met here, NBA owners convened in Dallas, after which deputy commissioner Adam Silver maintained "there is absolute agreement, and it’s a complete fiction coming from somewhere that there isn’t."

The negotiations can be delineated into two categories: Economics and structure.

Small-group negotiating sessions between the sides had apparently bridged many of the economic differences earlier this month, as players offered to reduce their share of the NBA’s $4 billion in revenue from 57 percent to 53 percent. The Suns’ Jared Dudley suggested that the players would have no problem going to 51 percent to get a deal — as long as a soft-cap system remained.

The most contentious issue appears to be structural — will the salary cap be hard or soft, and how much blood will be spilled in that fight.

"That’s a slap in the face," Gomes, a Clippers forward, said of a hard cap.

"No way will there be a hard cap," Dudley said.

Fisher suggested that there are not 30 owners who would risk the entire season over the insistence of a hard cap.

"Not even close," Fisher said, wondering if even half the owners were adamant about it. "In my opinion, there are not as many teams or owners as people would think that are interested in throwing away a season over a hard-cap issue."

The union’s negotiators will return to New York on Friday, and NBA commissioner David Stern said the league’s negotiating team will do the same. While nothing is planned, it would not surprise either side if there were further negotiations next week.

With training camps set to open in less than two weeks, and the season set to tip off on Nov. 1, the impasse will soon begin to eat into the season — and eat away at players’ paychecks.

On a day that was rife with symbolism — manufactured or not — the players naturally turned to a metaphor to state their position.

"The ball is in their court," the Clippers’ Williams said. "If David Stern wants a season tomorrow, we’ll have a season."