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Slowly but surely, NBA labor talks make some degree of progress

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LOS ANGELES -- The most promising NBA labor news to emerge in the last year was delivered Friday by players' union executive director Billy Hunter: "The meeting was somewhat amicable."

A two-hour conference between the union and NBA owners -- the first in more than two months -- was attended by 50 people, half of them players. "Every demographic was represented--bottom-feeders, mid-level players and max guys," said Bucks guard and union officer Keyon Dooling.

"At the end of the day, we agreed to get together and meet much more often and to try to get an agreement before the end of the season," said Hunter. "They indicated they're prepared to talk about everything, and we're prepared to talk about everything."

Hunter said the biggest impediment remains the owners' insistence on a hard salary cap. "We've indicated we don't see any way we can accept that," he said, adding that a hard cap would hurt the NBA product by creating huge roster turnover and preventing teams from developing a cohesive style of play.

Hunter insisted the owners can resolve many of their financial difficulties with a coherent revenue-sharing plan that would shift money from the larger markets to the smaller ones.

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Union president and Lakers guard Derek Fisher set the tone for the cordial meeting by respectfully reminding owners that the league's stars were largely responsible for the popularity of the NBA -- and now they were being threatened to pay the biggest price, should the owners force players to give back at least $400 million in salary next season. He pointed out that thousands of ancillary workers would lose money or jobs as a consequence of a lockout. "If there is a lockout," said Fisher, "it's because our owners are imposing a lockout, and not because it's something our players want or desire."

The players have been saving money in anticipation of a lockout, according to a union survey quoted by Hunter.

Hunter questioned whether a majority of NBA franchises are losing money, as the owners have insisted. "One of the representatives on the owners' side was asked would the NBA be making the same demands of the players if there weren't any losses [by teams]," said Hunter. "He said yes, they would." The lesson of that exchange, as Hunter saw it, was that these negotiations aren't about reducing losses so much as they're about ramping up the profits for owners.

"There have been times we've heard owners say verbatim that 'we need to be protected from ourselves,'" said Fisher.

He said the owners promised to provide the union with full financial reports from the 2009-10 season. The players have already seen those reports for 2008-09.

Hunter added that decertification remains an option should the owners impose a yearlong lockout. Though he wasn't willing to repeat his earlier prediction that a work stoppage was a 99 percent certainty, he said: "I'm going to tell my guys to be prepared for a lockout."