Lakers point guard Derek Fisher, president of the NBA players union, speaks… (Frank Franklin II / Associated…)
After two days of mild optimism, NBA labor negotiations ran into bruising reality.
The body language of the key figures said it all after talks between owners and players broke off Thursday, ending a three-day run in which 30 hours of discussions took place in New York with the attempted help of federal mediator George Cohen.
NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver and San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt glumly assessed the damage at a news conference that was followed a few minutes later by an angry rebuttal from the players' union.
A bad day for the NBA and its fans, undoubtedly.
"We're saddened on behalf of the game," Silver said.
No further discussions were scheduled between the sides, and it wouldn't be surprising if another two weeks of regular-season games were soon lopped off the NBA schedule, making it a total of four weeks lost to the lockout.
On Thursday, owners insisted on a 50-50 split of basketball-related income, while players moved slightly down from their demand of 53% to 52.5%. It wasn't enough for the owners.
"That's when we broke off," Silver said.
Players received 57% of basketball-related income last season. They claimed to be surprised by the stiffness of the owners' 50-50 offer, union Executive Director Billy Hunter calling it an ultimatum, a take-it-or-leave-it proposal and a poison pill.
"We stood there, somewhat shocked," he said. "We were prepared to negotiate through the night."
They didn't. Nobody did.
Union President Derek Fisher clenched his jaw while talking to reporters, obviously irritated by an abrupt end to the talks. He also didn't like what the owners said in their news conference, chafing at the insinuation that players dragged their feet.
"You guys were lied to earlier. It's that simple," he said. "We've spent the last few days making our best effort to try and find resolution here. In our opinion, that's not what the NBA or the league is interested in at this point. They're interested in telling you one side of the story that is not true….We in no way implied that we're not here to continue to negotiate."
Even Cohen, the federal mediator, seemed to throw up his hands at the chasm separating players and owners, releasing a statement that said in part, "No useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."
Commissioner David Stern wasn't at Thursday's session because of flu symptoms, but it would be easy to imagine his displeasure.
The NBA was flying high after a riveting playoff season. Now it might not get off the ground in time for its annual showcase of Christmas Day games.
"We've kind of worn each other out," said Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee. "We are where we are and they are where they are. We need some fresh air and maybe some fresh thoughts and then try and get back together."
Holt mentioned the oft-repeated phrase that 22 NBA teams lost a combined $450 million last season. He also said his Spurs team, a longtime championship competitor and winner of four NBA titles since 1999, lost money the last two seasons.
In case it isn't obvious, there's an impasse, now more than ever.
"We want to make sure our fans understand this is not a very happy day for us," Fisher said. "We're very sad...."
Bresnahan reported from Los Angeles