NBA labor negotiations head toward ugly conclusion

As they warmed up before Sunday night's Rip City Classic exhibition at Chiles Center, players wore black T-shirts with red lettering that declared, 'Basketball Never Stops.'

Ah, but it does in the NBA.

Last week was supposed to be the start of the regular season. Now we are left with the idea of trying to salvage a season at all.

After weekend negotiations, commissioner David Stern gave the players an offer and a Wednesday deadline to accept, or the terms get less advantageous for the union side.

On Sunday night, the players - from Kevin Durant to Jamal Crawford to Spencer Hawes to game host LaMarcus Aldridge - declared themselves in solidarity against accepting the league's proposal of from 49 to 51 percent of basketball-related income.

The next line of action is a move toward decertification of the Players Association, which requires about 130 signatures of players on a petition and will probably come by Tuesday. That, the union believes, would provide leverage against the owners, who might sweeten their offer rather than allow the issue to play out in federal court.

'I'm never for decertification,' veteran agent Aaron Goodwin told me Sunday night, 'but I'm afraid it's going to go to that, because the owners are not negotiating fairly. Their offer is not a good one at all.'

With due respect to Goodwin - whom I've known for many years and have always respected - the players are being sold a bill of goods.

I have read attorney Jeffrey Kessler's comment that 'the players will not be intimidated,' and that 'they are not going to sacrifice the future of all NBA players under these types of threats of intimidation.'

'The way the talks are headed, I think the decertification thing is coming,' Hawes told me before Sunday's exhibition. 'What we give up (in negotiations), we're not going to be able to get back. It's been give, give, give by us so far.

'It's not just about this year. It's about the future, the next five, 15, 20 years.'

Hold on now. The average player salary was $5.8 million last season. Were the players to accept the deal on the table now, it could fall to the $4.5 million range. That's still a truckload full of greenbacks. The future looks pretty secure to me - unless the players are foolish enough to press the issue and lose the season.

I was interested in the comments of Durant, one of the NBA's young superstars who stands to miss out on $13.6 million in salary this season.

'It's sickening, man,' he said when asked his reaction to the lockout. 'It looks like (the owners are) not going to give in. It's starting to get bad. We've done all we can do. They're trying to back us into a corner. It's not fair.'

Durant said the players are putting their trust in union executive director Billy Hunter and president Derek Fisher.

'We're all in this as one,' Durant said. 'We're going to stick to what we've been doing. Of course we want to play. Missing more games is bad for everybody, but we want to stand up for what's right. Negotiations can't just be one-sided.'

Then Durant said something that perked my ears: 'They told us three years ago this might happen, so everybody's been saying, 'Save your money.' We've been getting prepared for this.'

Yeah? Durant may be, but the rank-and-file members of the league may not have a nest egg to fall back on. And they'll be losing out on a full season of what for many will be a very short career.

'I feel bad for the fans, I feel bad for the people who work in the arenas,' Hawes said. 'But it's a business. For young guys, it's hard to understand that, but I think the guys do.'

I asked Hawes if he knows what happened after the NHL's last labor dispute, which resulted in a lost 2004-05 season and a hard salary cap of $39 million - much worse than the NHL's offer of $42.5 million with more cap flexibility.

'Nothing against the NHL, but the comparison doesn't work,' he said. 'Basketball is America's second-biggest sport, with more of a tradition. (The NHL players) were broken after a year.

'I hope it doesn't have to go a year to get what we feel is a fair deal, but our guys are ready to fight the fight we're in now.'

Careful what you wish for, fellas.

Darnell Valentine was a regional representative for the Players Association during the last lockout in 1998-99.

'The money is so big now, (the players) have to make a deal,' said the former Trail Blazer guard, who served as a coach of one of the teams Sunday night. 'The pool is so much larger now than it was back then.'

What we're left with is a series of exhibitions throughout the country such as the Rip City Classic, which played to a full house at Chiles.

Aldridge donated a good chunk of change to three charities, which was nice. The fans seemed to enjoy the fast-paced exhibition, which featured 42 3-point baskets, 19 dunks, no 24-second violations and more noise than a rap concert. Aldridge took 36 shots and scored 42 points while playing the entire 48 minutes, and Durant bombed in 47 points in his 38 minutes on the court.

It was a poor substitute, though, for a real NBA game, at least in my book.

Now Aldridge, as the Blazers' player representative, heads for New York and a Tuesday meeting with the union heads to decide a course of action.

I'm not very hopeful anything good will come of it.

Basketball never stops? In the NBA, looks to me as if it's going to for a long time.

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