By Ian Thomsen
February 13, 2010

David Stern's smile was meant to take the edge off his knifing statement."This year,'' the NBA commissioner told reporters in Dallas on Saturday, "we are projecting a league-wide loss of about $400 million."

A $400-million loss cannot be expressed as good news, and in the context of Stern's initial negotiations Friday with the players' union, it rang out like the gavel of a judge as he sternly regained control of the proceedings. Over the previous four years, added Stern, the league has been losing at least $200 million annually.

The current collective bargaining agreement is supposed to be paying the players 57 percent, but league sources say they are raking in more than 60 percent thanks to the excessive salaries paid out by the 13 franchises that have surpassed the luxury-tax threshhold this season.

"We have shown the players the facts, and at our current level of revenue devoted to players' salaries, it's too high,'' said Stern. "I can run from that, but I can't hide from that, and I don't think the players can, either. Those are the facts, and that's what we are dealing with. We are fact-based, and so that's the story."

Stern's perspective was meant to offset a news conference held Friday by union chief Billy Hunter, who described the initial 90-minute negotiating session that day as "contentious.''

"I would give yesterday's meetings high marks on the list of theatrical negotiations -- literally out of the handbook of Negotiating 101," said Stern of the union's behavior. "The lawyer [whom Stern would not name] was brought in to threaten us as a tactic to say the union is going to [decertify]; that's going to make you bargain harder. The right adjectives were thrown around, and our proposal was appropriately denounced.

"Our response is you can denounce it, tear it up, you can burn it, you can jump up and down on it, as long as you understand that it reflects the financial realities of where we are. And if you would like to have your own proposal, as long as it comes back and deals with our financial realities, that's OK with us. That's fine with us. In fact, that's what we would like to do."

Hunter had acknowledged the union would respond with its own proposal after hearing Stern suggest that the players accept salary cuts equal to 40 percent of revenues, as well as partially guaranteed contracts no longer than four years and a hard cap. That wish-list was so off-base, said Hunter, that the owners agreed to "tear up" the proposal and start over.

"I don't know what that means,'' Stern responded Saturday. "We are talking semantics, and everyone around here knows that I am not anti-semantic.

"If they don't like it, you know, that's what counters are about. We told them, as far as we are concerned, the proposal was one way to get to the result that we need. There could be a hundred ways, and we welcome their attempt to deal with the ways that we can get through."

Stern has promised to open all of the books and let the players see the red ink for themselves. Both sides can argue all they want, but nothing can change these two starting points: The owners can withstand an anticipated 2011 lockout far longer than the players, and the public will ultimately support a reduction in player salaries.

At the moment, however, the players are coming across as more sober and respectful than management, in light of recent quotes on attributed to an anonymous team executive who said,"If they don't like the new max contracts, LeBron [James] can play football, where he will make less than the new max. [Dwyane] Wade can be a fashion model or whatever. They won't make squat and no one will remember who they are in a few years."

Stern appeared angry only when addressing those comments, which he called "cowardly."

"If I ever found out who said them, they would be former NBA people, not current,'' said Stern. "And I took pain to tell the players that they should give such credibility as you would expect to give something that cowardly and anonymous as it was, and as offended by this as the players were."

In other words, Stern is going to tighten the message that is coming from his side of the bargaining table.

"We will manage to get to a place where we always get to," he Stern. "There is always a deal, and we plan to make a deal this time, too."

An eventual deal? Definitely. A lockout after next season? Highly likely.

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