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NBA Players Show They're Willing to Roll Dice Together

Pro basketball: Union's largest meeting in Las Vegas is said to be a passionate one.

October 23, 1998|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — More than 200 NBA players who recently earned an average of more than $2.5 million, making them the unlikeliest workers in the history of organized labor, gathered, appropriately enough, in glitzy Caesars Palace in a stirring demonstration--to themselves, at least--their union really does exist.

Attending Thursday's meeting were guests Don Fehr and Gene Upshaw, directors of the baseball and football players' unions, respectively, and, more significantly, Michael ($34 million a year) Jordan and Shaquille ($15 million) O'Neal, in their debuts at any National Basketball Players Assn. meeting.

In recent years, the union has been marked by apathy and confusion as it hired a former NBA deputy commissioner as director, rejected the deal he made, fired him and then voted on whether to decertify itself and failed to do that too.

This week it saw new director Billy Hunter's prize arbitration case go down in flames, while David Stern was canceling two weeks of games worth 8.5% of members' salaries and getting set to cancel another 8.5% worth.

If you're wondering if your heroes were worried, well, yes, they were.

"I think there's always been a question about the union's strength and solidarity and those questions were well-founded," said Steve Kerr, the Chicago Bulls' player representative and now 33-year-old free agent.

"I've been a union rep for four years and I've never seen a meeting like this. We had guys yelling and screaming in there and showing a lot of emotion, and that's very important.

"Whether people believe it or not, they [owners] have all the cards right now. David Stern is trying to ram home a bad deal on us and we're going to make our stand."

If all the chest-thumping and "I'm behind this union 110%" declarations were sound and fury, signifying less than what players actually do Nov. 15 when they miss that first paycheck, it was still a turnaround for this union, which two days ago was predicting a turnout of 100 of its 430 members.

Jordan, who had been begged for years to attend union meetings, always refusing, whose Bulls went several seasons in the early '90s without a player rep, stayed for the six-hour meeting on a perfect fall day when he could have been playing 45 holes of golf, showing how much this cause now means to him.

Jordan, of course, has yet to announce if he'll return, but just in case . . .

"Sure, my mind is still open," he said. "I haven't made a definite decision, but that doesn't tell me I should not be involved with what's happening to the union because I'm a part of the union."

O'Neal, who was notably silent when Jordan and Patrick Ewing launched the 1995 move to decertify the union, said recently players must keep the fans' feelings in mind, suggesting he was and is a dove. But Thursday, Shaq said he was on board too.

"I did say that," O'Neal said, "but I also said that we want a fair deal."

Hunter announced that 100 players would loan their $25,000 payments for merchandising rights to a fund to help needy players. The players will hold exhibitions to raise funds, the first one in Houston where a large group, including O'Neal and Penny Hardaway have gathered to play pickup games.

Hunter says he expects to resume negotiations next week in NewYork.

NBA owners will also be meeting there, and Stern is expected to cancel the rest of November's games.

There have been only four negotiating sessions since the July 1 lockout, so if the new, united union and the always-formidable league don't learn to talk to each other soon, maybe they can invite Fehr back and ask him what to do after you've blown off the season.

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