Atlanta Hawk forward Grant Long had finally made up his mind. With the NBA's 425 players scheduled to vote this week and next on a proposal to decertify the NBA players' association, Long decided last week to support the union.
Long thought it was safer to keep the union alive and, in the process, accept a union-backed collective bargaining agreement that would allow the 1995-96 NBA season to begin on time, something that might not happen if the players vote to decertify. The proposed agreement wasn't perfect, but accepting it didn't seem nearly as risky as decertifying the union and going to court in hopes of pressuring NBA commissioner David Stern and the owners to give the players a better deal.
But then Long received a video via overnight express from the decertification camp, which is led by various agents and stars Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Reggie Miller. He put it in his VCR, and there were Jordan, Ewing, Miller and other players trying to convince him that decertifying the union was the only logical alternative. The dissidents argued that union executive director Simon Gourdine and union president Buck Williams had negotiated two bad deals. The first one, which was abandoned in the face of intense opposition, included a team luxury tax that, it was argued, would have put a drag on salaries. In the dissidents' view the current proposal was only slightly better.
Long watched and listened as Jordan, Ewing and Miller told him that the best way to get a fair deal was to eliminate the union. Under antitrust rules, that would allow the players to seek an injunction against the owners' two-month-old lockout. The teams would then be forced to open their doors to the players, and without the leverage of a lockout the league presumably would negotiate a deal more favorable to the players. "Just the stature of the players on that video was impressive," Long says. "What they said made some sense, just like what the union said made some sense. I was right back where I was to begin with—on the fence."
That's where the union, the league and the dissidents have been operating lately, trying to pull players over to their side. Long's fax machine has been whirring, couriers have brought correspondence from both sides, and his phone has been ringing off the hook, as with virtually every other player in the league. Three general managers have called in the past two weeks to casually urge him to vote to accept the agreement. In addition to the videotape, the dissidents have sent out an eight-page letter stating their case. The union and the league have offered to pay for transportation for players to and from voting sites at 47 NLRB offices across the country.
"It's kind of like being recruited all over again," Long says. "The art of persuasion has taken on a new form."
There is no disputing the fact that the league would not have ditched its luxury tax proposal without the threat of decertification and a court battle hanging over its head. The dissidents deserve credit for that, and perhaps they deserve the trust of the players as well.
On the other hand, there is no guarantee that if the players decertify, they will be granted the injunction against the lockout, although the dissidents' attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, was part of the legal team representing the the NFL Players Association when it successfully sought a similar injunction in its labor showdown with NFL owners. Even if an injunction is granted in the NBA dispute, antitrust litigation could take years, and there is the possibility that the league could impose any system it chooses in the interim. Stern insists that the league will not open its doors under any circumstances without an agreement. "What system would we play under?" he asks. "The old salary cap? The old situation with no cap on rookies? I'm sorry, but no. The owners have already voted not to open until there's a new basic agreement. We either play under a system fair for all, or we don't play. That's final."
Meanwhile, rumors swirl that fringe players have been told in veiled terms that if they vote to decertify, they might have difficulty finding work when their contracts expire. "It's supposed to be a secret ballot, but do you want to bet your next contract that it will stay secret?" says one player.
Long, 29, has four years left on a contract that will pay him $1.95 million this season, so he has no immediate worries about his next deal. But like many players, he's trying to sift through valid arguments and propaganda from both sides. "I want to know what's hidden," he says. "I know the way something looks on paper isn't always the way it looks in the real world."