Maurice Evans doesn’t know how or when the NBA labor dispute will be resolved, but he remains hopeful that the owners and players can still salvage most of the season — despite agreeing with Commissioner David Stern’s assertion that a “wide gulf” separates the two sides.
After a failed last-minute negotiating session this week, Stern canceled the first two weeks of the regular season — ensuring that the players would lose about $165 million — and vowed that he would eliminate more games if talks continued to stall. But Evans, the players’ union vice president and Wizards free agent swingman, said in a telephone interview this week that the loss of income from a more protracted work stoppage wouldn’t force the players to accept what they believe to be a terrible deal.
“That’s where the owners are miscalculating the players, because we have prepared for this fight. That’s what it is, it’s a fight,” Evans said. “We’re not emboldened in our position due to ego or emotion. We’re making decisions off of fairness and we are trying to negotiate in all fairness. Again, we’ve made concessions, but capitulating is a totally different story and that’s something the players will not do.”
Evans will join Billy Hunter, the National Basketball Players Association executive director, and union President Derek Fisher on Friday in Los Angeles, where they will hold a regional meeting with players to discuss where the union and league stand.
Hunter announced on Wednesday that the league and union had agreed to have a federal mediator intervene in an attempt to settle their differences.
George Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said he would begin meeting with both sides next Tuesday in New York. Appointed to his position by President Obama, Cohen was also present for 16 days of talks between NFL negotiators in February and said in a statement that he has been in contact with representatives from the NBA and its union for “a number of months.”
“It is evident that the ongoing dispute will result in a serious impact, not only upon the parties directly involved, but also, of major concern, on interstate commerce — i.e., the employers and working men and women who provide services related to the basketball games, and, more generally, on the economy of every city in which those games are scheduled to be played,” Cohen said in the statement.
The owners locked out the players on July 1 to repair what deputy commissioner Adam Silver called a “broken” system that he believes doesn’t give all 30 teams a chance to compete for championships. Since 2007, no team has won an NBA title without paying the luxury tax — a dollar for dollar penalty for teams that spend well above the salary cap — and the past four champions all come from high-spending, big-market teams in Dallas, Los Angeles and Boston.
The two sides have made only minimal steps toward each other over the past four months, resulting in the league canceling regular season games for the first time since 1998. “We have very different ideologies and I don’t think we will ever understand their way of thinking, and I don’t think they would ever understand ours,” Evans said. “But it’s most important that we would accept one another’s position and try to find that compromise, whatever it is, on both economics and system issues.”
Players offered to reduce their share of nearly $4 billion in basketball-related income from 57 percent to 53 percent but owners have asked them to come down to 47 percent. Owners are also seeking to reduce the length of contracts to four years for players re-signing with their current teams and three years for free agents joining new teams.
And while Stern said the league has backed off its desires to establish a hard salary cap similar to the model in the NHL and NFL, Hunter contends that the proposed luxury tax penalty for teams that go above the tax threshold — charging as much as $4 for each $1 over — would have the same effect.
“The obstacle is that both are contingent on one another — the economics mean absolutely nothing if the wrong system is in place,” Evans said. “We’re trying to negotiate fairly, in good faith, to put forth a system that will allow the players to grow with the owners and be fairly compensated as the game grows. . . . And to also allow players to accept and be held responsible for some of the risks associated with the game potentially not growing. But we don’t believe this game will not grow.
“Players are accepting David Stern’s reset because we do understand we are in a tough economic climate. That’s why we’ve [moved] so much money in their direction,” Evans said. “But on the issue of competitive balance, there is so much more that comes into play than enforcing a flex-cap or hard-cap system that allows teams to not pay players to get better. Now it restricts teams, based upon being a tax payer, of their ability to get better. At some point, decision-making does lead to competitive balance — decision-making.”
Evans said he understands the frustration of fans who simply want the game back. “We say to the fans, we appreciate and hope to have your continued support. We understand that the fans are what make our game possible in the sense where we understand how significant their contributions and support is, but unfortunately, we would be doing our fans, and more importantly, we would be doing ourselves a disservice, if we allow a system that functions as a hard cap system. And if we completely capitulate on economics and system issues, the game will not flourish — at all.”
Union leaders have warned players for the past two years to save money because the owners were seeking to make drastic changes to the next collective bargaining agreement.Hunter told reporters in New York this week that owners have angled to shut down the league for some time. Evans said “we understand what we’re dealing with.”
But when asked if he believes the two sides can reach an agreement without sacrificing the entire season, he replied, “I’m still very optimistic, but at this stage in the process, unfortunately, I don’t see an end game in sight.”