PHOENIX, FEB. 28 -- The NBA Players Association is canvassing its members and gathering votes to decertify the union, the first step in what it hopes will lead to either the elimination of the National Basketball Association's antitrust and labor law exemptions or a new collective bargaining agreement with the NBA.

According to NBAPA Executive Vice President Charles Grantham, it will take another month to meet with all of the teams and acquire the 60 percent of the players' votes necessary to decertify the union. After the votes are gathered, the NBAPA has six months to file the motion with the U.S. Department of Labor.

During the all-star weekend in Chicago three weeks ago, player representatives from each of the 23 teams voted unanimously to decertify the NBAPA.

"Clearly, when you talk about decertification, you're doing it to win the lawsuit and put pressure on the league," said Grantham.

The last collective bargaining agreement between the league and players expired at the conclusion of the 1986-87 season. Negotiations for a new pact have snagged on three items the NBAPA wants eliminated: the college draft, team salary caps and teams' rights of first refusal on their players who have become free agents.

In November, a district court in New Jersey ruled that all three practices are protected under federal antitrust laws. However, the NBAPA has pressed on with a suit that contends the three items are in violation of labor law.

Last June, the league and the NBAPA agreed to a three-month moratorium on signing free agents but there was no progress in negotiating a new agreement. At various times since the start of training camp, there has been talk of a players strike, a possibility decried by such stars as Boston's Larry Bird and Kevin McHale and Utah's Karl Malone.

"The whole idea of this is to prevent a work stoppage; the players don't support a strike," Grantham said. "This is a means of taking away the labor exemption."

The league has not formulated an official response to the union's move toward decertification.

"We haven't really heard anything since then {players' meeting in Chicago}. We don't know what the union is doing or not doing," said NBA Executive Vice President Russell Granik. "It's a little hard to talk about policy until we see what they're doing."

Granik acknowledged that the steps taken by the NBAPA are unprecedented, but said league officials still have to decide whether the decertification action is meaningful.

"I'm not saying that they're bluffing and won't do it, but we have to determine whether they're solely doing this to try and put more pressure on us {to negotiate for a new contract}," Granik said. "The whole reason for this is to eliminate the labor exemption. But if our lawyers are convinced that they can convince a jury that {decertification} is a sham, or all they're doing is trying to change the circumstances of negotiation . . . We'll have to wait and see what they do and if our laywers say it's a meaningful action."

Granik said that in a possible trial, the league might seek to show that the NBAPA's attempt to decertify wasn't sincere.

"We could take depositions of that Friday night meeting in Chicago," he said. "Were the guys told, 'Don't worry about this stuff, it's just something we're doing'? They've just elected a new president, Alex English. That doesn't sound like a group that's going out of business.

"I think that we have a certain starting point of skepticism about this."

While the current season will be unaffected, things could quickly get chaotic when and if the NBAPA files for decertification. In the union view, on the first day after the last playoff game, free agents would no longer be subject to the right of first refusal, which gives a team the right to match any contract offer to one of its unsigned players by another team. Also, if a college draft were to take place, the athletes could possibly sue.

A myriad of other collective bargaining factors would be affected, such as the per diem given players for road trips as well as insurance benefits and pension packages. Without a union standardization, each of the 23 teams (soon to be 25 and then 27 with expansion) would have to negotiate such packages with players individually, as well as deal with any possible lawsuits that might be filed by free agents and college players.

Against those individual gains, or supposed gains, the NBAPA is looking at the possibility of driving itself out of business. Grantham admits that "you can't do it {decertify} one day and then reappear the next."

Talking tough, Granik said decertification "still won't cause us to make a deal. It's not some great thing in and of itself, like they think that it is. The worst that could happen is that it may change the odds slightly."

Because of the NBAPA's lawsuit, there have been no recent negotiations toward a collective bargaining agreement. However, the league and the union could reach an out-of-court settlement of the suit, the specifics of which would likely provide the basis for a new contract.

"If you look at the past, at some point in the process a deal has been reached," said Grantham. "We're still in that process but we're quickly reaching the crossroads. I'm not sure what will happen now."