Thursday promises to be the biggest day of a 2011-12 NBA season that may never be. Game 7 of the 2012 NBA Finals -- if there is a Finals -- could go into quadruple or quintuple overtime, and it could still not be any more important than Thursday's labor talks.
After Wednesday's late-night session in New York, the owners have pushed back their deadline to reach agreement with the players on a new collective bargaining agreement. The sides are trying to end the lockout and finalize a deal within the limited means that their constituencies will allow. This has been going on and on and on since the lockout began in July -- since 2009, in fact, because that was when the posturing began -- and now it is going to end. The result will be success or failure, and a truncated season or no season at all.
It's become clear that the league and union can agree to a 50-50 split of basketball-related income. But the players will submit to an equal division of money only if they can procure a system to deliver that money in a way that satisfies their membership, following a meeting Tuesday in which 29 team representatives rejected the owners' ultimatum proposal.
The difficulties of this negotiation can be seen in the willingness of commissioner David Stern to continue meeting with the players after he had issued his threat to downgrade the proposal to 53-47 in favor of the owners, along with much stricter provisions on contracts, free agency and the salary cap. Stern was issuing his ultimatum while the players were making preparations to decertify and take these negotiations before a judge.
That's why this final stage of talks, to be continued Thursday afternoon, is so important. For the better part of a dozen hours Wednesday the owners and players tried to find agreement on five "system'' issues that will define whether basketball will be played anytime soon.
Even if the two sides shake hands on an agreement of sorts Thursday, they must then gain the approval of their larger membership. Will the owners authorize the compromises made by Stern, who fully understands the risks of losing the season? Will the players accept a deal in which they've ceded ground on virtually every issue?
An understanding in New York will not guarantee that basketball is going to be played this season. But if they fail to reach an understanding Thursday, or are unable to maintain progress that delivers another session Friday, my feeling is there likely will be no basketball until next season.
If they come out of the room with nothing and break off talks, then the league's offer is likely to plummet, the players are likely to seek decertification and the NBA's future becomes murkier than ever.
This is why they must reach an agreement. In a time when so many people's businesses and mortgages have been going under for reasons beyond their control, the NBA cannot afford to shut down for reasons of its own making. A season-long cancellation could be suicidal to the shared business of the owners and players during these hard economic times.
Progress was made Wednesday on several of the system issues, according to Yahoo! Sports and NBA.com. But after years of frustrating negotiations, neither side was able to acknowledge that an agreement was within reach.
"I can't characterize whether they showed flexibility or not,'' union president Derek Fisher said after Wednesday's talks. "Obviously, we'd have a deal done if the right flexibility was being shown. The fact that we don't have a deal lets you know that there's still a lot of work to be done on the system.''
Said Stern: "I would not read into this optimism or pessimism. We're not failing and we're not succeeding. We're just there.''
The leadership on each side of the table is trying to hold together its coalitions. Stern has a bloc of owners who want to play now, and other owners who would be willing to hold out in pursuit of a deal that would hammer the players. Then there are about 200 players, according to union executive director Billy Hunter, who want to decertify should these negotiations fail.
When Woody Allen said 90 percent of success is based on just showing up, he wasn't talking about these labor talks. They've been showing up for a long time without anything to show for it. Yet their ability to make a deal depends entirely on showing up Thursday, and they won't have to create deadline pressure or issue ultimatums. Those burdens exist already, and they will be felt by everyone in the negotiating room. In terms of saving the 2011-12 season, it really is now or never.