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Union president Fisher maintains bold stance in labor negotiations

"It breaks my heart to see the way guys like LaDainian Tomlinson get dealt with in the NFL," Fisher said of the former MVP who gained 914 yards for the Jets last season after he had been waived by the Chargers. "To see what he'd done for the San Diego Chargers and to get to that place where he was under a contract that's already been signed. The Chargers were able to absorb value in income and potential profits from years of his services, and then at the drop of a hat, based on arbitrary thinking because he's a certain age and he can't produce at a certain level anymore, he's gone. Out the door."

While NBA owners may be seeking to create their own version of the NFL system -- based on revenue sharing, a hard cap and the right to cut off salary to underachieving players -- Fisher is skeptical. He believes revenue sharing can resolve many of the owners' problems, but he is extremely skeptical about how they would institute a hard cap as well as contracts that are partially or entirely nonguaranteed.

As detailed in this week's Sports Illustrated, Fisher provided me with a series of behind-the-scenes interviews leading up to the NBA's July 1 lockout. In addition to discussions by phone, we met in Dallas last month following a negotiating session during the NBA Finals, in Los Angeles three days before the final meeting in New York, and then in his town car 15 minutes after he emerged from the doomed June 30 gathering in New York, where he was grim while answering the questions of reporters crowded around him.

"In the last week or two there was an underlying tension, because we all want to find a common ground," he said on June 30. "But we still have the necessary time to continue to negotiate a fair deal and use these summer months to try to get that accomplished before missing a training camp or preseason or a regular season."

Fisher has been able to maintain a civility with the owners that has offered some hope for a settlement. One major disagreement has been raised by the owners' insistence on an unprecedented 10-year collective bargaining agreement. When Fisher reminded the owners that they've routinely been credited with outfoxing the union in previous CBA negotiations, he was surprised by their response.

"They gave us credit for outnegotiating them in the past," Fisher said. "So it cuts two ways. If you've been so severely outnegotiated by us in shorter-term deals, why would you want a deal that is twice as long? The other way of looking at it is that you're patronizing me and that you know that if you get a deal twice as long as the last one for much better terms, then it could be the grand slam of all grand slams [at the expense of the players]."

Agents and other union advisers have been urging Fisher and union executive director Billy Hunter to decertify in order to bring the NBA owners to court, much as the NFL has done. But the NBPA has believed that court actions could essentially end hopes of saving the 2011-12 season. Fisher and Hunter are still seeking the ultimate: a compromise with the owners in time to enable regular-season basketball to begin as scheduled Nov. 1 in Dallas.

Each side of this stalemated negotiation is making a legitimate argument. The owners say they've lost money in each of the last six years, and they maintain that no business can flourish in an environment that is hostile to its chief investors. A commitment to fixing the financial system will lead to a period of growth in which both they and the players will thrive -- that's the owners' view.

The players, on the other hand, are seeking to maintain a status quo that resulted in a highly popular season culminating in the Mavericks' upset of Miami in the NBA Finals. Their argument is fundamentally easier for the fans to grasp: They say if the owners change the financial structure, then the NBA itself will be ruined because it will be harder than ever to persuade role players to play team basketball while teammates are competing against one another for nonguaranteed money year after year. Why change a structure that worked so well as recently as last month?

"As players, it confuses us to be in a position where everything can go right [for the NBA in 2010-11] in terms of being able to promote the game and put the game on a pedestal and sell the game as one of the best in the world, if not the best -- that somehow we're so economically strapped at the same time?" Fisher said on June 30 as he drove away from the final meeting in New York. "Somehow they just don't fit together.

"I'm sure for fans it has to be equally confusing: 'I've spent my hard-earned money, I'm watching the games, I'm buying the jerseys, I'm downloading apps and going online and doing everything that lends its support to NBA basketball because I love to watch. And the feedback is: There's a lockout.' Those two things don't equate. And so it makes for a slippery slope if we don't figure this thing out."

The talks are frozen because neither side has been willing to hold itself accountable yet. Any educated fan would urge the players to move toward a system that rewards performers and punishes malingerers who sign long contracts only to wind up "stealing the money" (to turn a phrase that players use among themselves), and likewise that the deep and entertaining rosters of the champion Mavericks and Lakers should not be diminished in order to prop up the underachieving Timberwolves and Clippers. Yet the owners and players continue to blame each other for the NBA's problems, without confessing to their own negative issues. Perhaps they will move toward compromise as they begin to run out of time in September.

One unlikely ally to Fisher could be Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss, who needs two more championships to surpass the record 17 titles of the rival Celtics. Buss may agree with Fisher's view that other teams should be trying to keep up with the Lakers, rather than to install a hard ceiling on salaries that will limit Buss' ambition and pull the Lakers down to the level of smaller-market clubs financially. But Fisher wonders if rival owners are driven mainly by jealousy of the league's most successful modern owner.

"I'm not sure how Doc is viewed amongst the group of ownership," Fisher said of Buss. "I don't know if they view him as fortunate, as though he benefited from being in L.A. I don't know if they appreciate the decision-making that has gone into the success he's experienced over the last three decades. I think sometimes he's viewed [by other owners] as lucky to get Magic Johnson or to get Shaq or to have Jerry West as GM or to get Kobe Bryant and that all these things have come from being in L.A. I'm not sure if they view him as a genius and deserving of the success that the Lakers have enjoyed, or if he's viewed as one of the guys who is just lucky."