By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 1:08 AM
LOS ANGELES - The NBA and its constellation of talent has gathered before for its annual All-Star Weekend with unresolved problems regarding its collective bargaining agreement on several occasions. But despite extreme posturing and rhetoric from Commissioner David Stern and representatives of the players' union, the topic usually takes a background role to the competitions and other festivities.
This season, however, concerns that the league could have a work stoppage that threatens the start - or all - of next season have been, as Boston Celtics all-star forward Kevin Garnett said, "put on Front Street" and assumed a spotlight much like the excessive banners that hang above Staples Center, the adjourning Los Angeles Convention Center and surrounding neighborhoods.
With an influx of new, energetic owners hoping to receive a quicker return on their nine-figure investments into the league and a players' union content with the current structure and unwilling to relent, the 60th All-Star Weekend has a different feel from those of the past.
"Am I concerned there is going to be a lockout? As everybody is saying, there is probably going to be," said San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan. "I just want to make sure, however many years from now, the guys that come in have a good deal on the table. Just like when I came in, my second year in the league, that's what the veterans did for us. It was set up for the years now, that we have good deals and we're getting a fair share. That's the concern, not for myself or a missed season, that we get the right deal."
Garnett, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire and Kevin Durant were among the all-stars who sat down with a group of owners and NBA executives, including labor relations chair Peter Holt of the San Antonio Spurs, for a two-hour meeting in Beverly Hills on Friday. The meeting signaled progress only because the two sides were in the room, something that has only been done once in the past 13 months. National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter described the encounter as "somewhat amicable."
They departed as far apart on an agreement as they entered, but at least made plans to discuss their differences more often. The CBA expires on June 30 and the players' union has been warning its members all season to prepare for the worst, save money, and not to expect a swift resolution.
During a televised news conference after the meeting on Friday, Hunter said they are prepared to lose an entire season if a compromise isn't met. "If it takes that, we're willing to go there," he said. "We don't want to go there, but we're willing to suffer some pain."
The largest obstacle to getting a deal done is that owners are pushing for a hard salary cap, a structure similar to the one in the NHL. New Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis received a $100,000 fine for mentioning his preference for such a model to business leaders last September. Owners would also like to reduce player salaries, the length of contracts, reduce guaranteed contracts and reap more of the revenues.
"If there is a lockout, it's because our owners are imposing a lockout," Union Executive Committee President Derek Fisher said, "and not because it's something our players want or desire."
Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki is one of six current all-stars who were affected by the last lockout, which resulted in a 50-game regular season and no All-Star Game in 1998-99. Drafted in 1998, Nowitzki didn't have to worry about losing money because he hadn't signed a contract. He stayed with his team in Germany, checking for updates on the NBA situation each day until the day he read, "Season Saved." He arrived in Dallas shortly thereafter and was playing games 10 days later.
"It was a weird time, I think, for everyone involved," Nowitzki said. "It's an unfortunate situation, so hopefully it won't get that far. I'm definitely going to enjoy this one."
Celtics guard Ray Allen remembers working out and golfing during the extended break, and connecting with Tim Hardaway and about 30 other players in Miami to play basketball and stay in shape.
"I was twiddling my thumbs, waiting for this to end," Allen said. "Based on what happened in '98-99, the guys that are still around, we understand what we don't want to go through.
"I think around the world, they don't understand, we want to play, we want to be out there and it's the owners that are not particularly happy with what's going on and they want to change the business model. So we have to do everything we can to keep what we've got going on going on, because we don't want to lose the momentum we have. I think the league is in good shape right now."
Owners have claimed that they expect to lose nearly $300 million this season and would like for players to give back close to $400 million in salaries. But James questioned those numbers.
"I hear all the speculation about the league isn't doing well. But the league is absolutely doing well," James said. "I understand how important the game of basketball is to everyone. Not only to the owners and the players, but the fans. It's important for everybody."