There's not much point in being on the Strip in Las Vegas unless you're a gambler or an entertainer, and the more than 200 NBA players who went to Caesars Palace for a union meeting last Thursday were a little of both. They were betting that by declaring their willingness to forgo an entire season's salary, they were reducing the possibility of actually having to lose all that money. To that end they put on a show—not quite up to the standards of a Vegas-style revue, perhaps, but well-choreographed nonetheless—designed to prove to the owners who are locking them out in the league's four-month labor dispute that the union's resolve is strong.
Player after player emerged from the meeting trumpeting the same message of fear and loathing in Las Vegas: Their fear of losing the season was surpassed only by their loathing for management's demand for a hard cap on salaries. "Players want to play," said free-agent forward Charles Barkley, "but we're not going to accept a crappy proposal just to get back on the floor or appease the fans. The owners have given us three proposals, but they've just been the same crap in different packages."
Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' association, was upbeat after the meeting. It was the biggest display of player interest in union affairs in recent memory, although the lure of Las Vegas surely had something to do with the high attendance. Stars Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, who had been critical of the union in the past, came to show their support and then stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson and lesser lights such as Michael Curry and Danny Schayes at a press conference after the meeting. But as in most Vegas shows, everything looked much more polished out front than it did backstage.
Although the players voted unanimously to reject a hard cap, Hunter heard enough in the emotional six-hour meeting to convince him that there's no telling how many more paychecks they can bear losing. Several of the players in the Las Vegas meeting wanted to know why the two sides can't just get in a room and compromise. Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton asked at one point if the players should consider accepting a smaller percentage of the league's revenue for player salaries—the players received 57% last season—but his suggestion was loudly rejected by a vast majority of the attendees, who didn't want the owners to think they were backing down.
There is also a small faction of players—especially mid-level ones nearing the end of their careers—who are afraid of losing the entire season. Even if union leaders hold a Vegas pep rally once a week, that group will grow and become more vocal with each lost paycheck. "It's hard for a player like me to just throw the whole season away," said Muggsy Bogues, the Golden State Warriors' 33-year-old point guard, who is in the final year of a contract that was supposed to pay him $2.8 million this season. "You want someone like [free-agent point guard] Damon Stoudamire to be rewarded for what he'll do, but then you look at your situation and see you might not get another three-or four-year contract."
Even players who solidly support the union, such as free-agent guard Steve Kerr, admit that it's impossible to predict how players will feel a week or a month from now. "Everybody said they were willing to miss the season if that's what it takes, but who can really say that with certainty?" said Kerr. "Ask me right now, and I'll tell you I'm ready to do it, but there's no way to truly know if I am.
"A lot of guys are going to slip through the cracks, and I could be one of them. I'm 33, and if I miss this season, I don't know what's going to happen next season. Older guys with one year left on a guaranteed contract might not get another. A lot of guys are going to pay for this, and they're not the superstars. But for the good of the union over the long haul, we cannot accept this deal, no matter what rhetoric you hear from [ NBA commissioner] David Stern."
Given the unease already apparent in some players, there's no telling how long the unity will last, which may be why Hunter and association president Patrick Ewing had a three-hour negotiating session with Stern and other league representatives two days after the Las Vegas meeting, but an NBA spokesman said no progress was made in the session.
Another reason for hastening back to the negotiating table is that it's now clear the union will be hard-pressed to offset the players' financial losses—they've already lost about $100 million since the lockout began, on July 1. But Hunter says the association has established lines of credit with two banks, and more than 100 players have agreed to defer their annual $25,000 share of the league's licensing revenue so that the money can be distributed to players who need it. However, the union will have to pay that money back eventually.
If the union believes pay-per-view exhibitions will create a financial windfall for the union's coffers, a charity game in Houston last Friday should have convinced it otherwise. A group of 24 players, including Penny Hardaway, Tim Hardaway, Stephon Marbury, Antonio McDyess and Antoine Walker, couldn't fill 8,479-seat Hofheinz Pavilion. The game started 50 minutes late, and several players who had been expected to participate, including Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson and Mitch Richmond, failed to appear, and Hakeem Olajuwon of the hometown Rockets showed up but didn't suit up.