NEW YORK -- At one point during the most important negotiation in two years of psychological and economic warfare, someone took a moment for comic relief.
It was much needed, and much appreciated given the stakes -- a cancelled season, a fractured league, a squandered opportunity to build upon astronomical growth and momentum.
In the restroom outside the conference room where owners and players were trying to move the ball, as Billy Hunter put it, from the 2-yard-line to the end zone, there were two urinals: one tall one, and one short one. A piece of paper was taped to the wall above each.
One said, "Players."
The other said, "Owners."
If things had blown up Tuesday -- if the anticipated fiery inferno of rhetoric, name-calling and ego-driven tirades had ensued -- then none of this would've been funny. But knowing what we know now -- that the owners and players have closed nearly all of the $8 billion gap that separated them a few months ago -- it might just be safe to laugh.
Just maybe, the NBA's 2011-12 season can be saved.
Despite the intransigence of the owners in their goal of achieving profitability and a level playing field ... despite the players' almost religious zeal for guaranteed contracts and other perks achieved over the years ... and despite formidable external forces that threatened to implode the negotiations ... the NBA and the players association are only about $80 million a year apart on the economics of a new collective bargaining agreement, multiple people with knowledge of the deal told CBSSports.com.
So even though all parties left a Times Square hotel looking grim-faced and feeling disappointed, the two sides in theory have moved so close to a deal that it is almost incomprehensible they would choose hundreds of millions in losses -- or billions from a completely lost season -- instead.
According to sources, here is how the two sides closed the gap, which stood at about $320 million in the first year of a new deal -- the difference between the players' standing offer that they get 54 percent of revenues and the owners' 46 percent offer -- when they walked into the room Tuesday.
After the owners offered the players a 50-50 split of revenues that effectively was a 47-percent share with about $350 million in expenses deducted first, the two sides met in small groups in the hallway while each side's larger group caucused in separate rooms. As the hour grew late, the tension was rising and becoming palpable. Both sides recognized it was time to try everything possible to make a deal.
In the group for the league side were commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee. For the players, it was union president Derek Fisher, outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler and two of the brightest stars who attended Tuesday's crucial bargaining session -- Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, according to one of the people with knowledge of the side meeting.
In that group, the league -- sensing the opportunity for a deal was there -- proposed essentially a 50-50 split with no additional expense reductions over a seven-year proposal, with each side having the ability to opt out after the sixth year, two of the people said. This was the offer Stern described in his news conference Tuesday evening, one he and Silver thought would be enough to finally close the enormous gap between the two sides.
The league's offer, according to four people familiar with it, came in a range of 49-51 -- with 49 percent guaranteed and a cap of 51 percent, the sources said.
"There was a real opportunity to make progress," Stern said.
Stern told the players and Kessler that he was bringing this proposal to his owners in an attempt to sell it, making no bones about the fact that he would. In fact, Stern said in the news conference, he did sell it; the owners were prepared to sign off on this 49-51 percent band. With many of the most polarizing system issues resolved -- the league previously had relented on its the most severe version of its hard team salary cap, agreed to drop its pursuit of rollbacks on existing contracts and offered to retain the basic structure of max contracts -- the framework of a deal was in sight.
"Adam and I felt comfortable and confident that we would be able to report to the players that we could move to the next subject, because the split had been accomplished," Stern said.
While the owners were caucusing, a member of the players' group returned with a counterproposal -- effectively 52 percent of basketball-related income (BRI) for the players with no additional expenses deducted. The players' counterproposal followed the format presented by the owners -- a 51-53 percent band, though sources gave different accounts of whether the players' offer included a guarantee at 51 percent and a cap at 53.
So while Hunter and Stern remained publicly entrenched in the economic positions of their most recent formal proposals -- with the players asking for 53 percent and the league offering effectively 47 -- the reality is this: the gap has closed to 2 percentage points of BRI, the difference between the midpoint of the two offers, or stated differently, the value of one Gilbert Arenas.
With each percentage point of BRI worth about $40 million, the two sides -- who were at one time $8 billion apart over 10 years -- are now a mere $80 million apart in the first year of a new deal. So you can see what the two sides saw Tuesday -- the road to a deal that, in its final form will be better than the alternative of missing a substantial portion of the regular season.
"We've spent a lot of time with our teams walking through those scenarios of lost games, and the damage is enormous -- will be enormous," Silver said.
Despite being at the cusp of an economic deal, the two sides left the hotel Tuesday night with no agreement, resulting in the league almost immediately cancelling the rest of the preseason schedule at a cost Stern estimated at $200 million.
Stern also set a deadline of Monday for canceling the first two weeks of the regular season at a cost Silver said would be "in the hundreds of millions of dollars."
The two sides have repeated often during these weeks of excruciating negotiations that the calendar is not their friend. But with a deal potentially within reach, they could well be on speaking terms with the calendar by Sunday.
Though there were no immediate plans for the two sides to meet Wednesday, two people close to the discussions said a Thursday meeting was possible. Several key parties to the process will be unavailable from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday for Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar.
If history is any guide, the day for an agreement in principle would be Sunday -- the day before regular season games would be lost. During the 1998-99 lockout, the first two weeks of the regular season were cancelled on Oct. 13, and a deal finally was reached on the eve of the deadline set by the league to cancel the rest of the season in January.
"Our indication today to go to a 50 50 deal demonstrates even more potential movement on our part," Silver said. "So we haven't made a secret of the fact that we'd very much like to make a deal."
If we've learned anything from these negotiations, it's that nothing of importance happens until the clock is about to strike midnight.
Complications remain, of course, not the least of which is the fact that this informal side discussion of the two BRI bands would have to be worked through the formal process of getting each side's committee to sign off -- besides the fact that there is more negotiation to be had on both the split and the system. Also, by walking out without a deal Tuesday, the players association is vulnerable to the influence of agents who have made it clear they are unhappy with the course of negotiations and have openly threatened to encourage their clients to decertify the union.
Two people with direct knowledge of the strategy being invoked by a group of seven super agents who wrote a letter to their clients over the weekend said the group -- including Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Mark Bartelstein, Dan Fegan, Jeff Schwartz, Leon Rose and Henry Thomas -- is willing to accept no less than 52 percent of BRI. There is disagreement within the ranks on that figure, with a hard-line faction pushing for the players not to retreat at all from the 57 percent of BRI they received under the previous CBA.
One thing all the agents agree on is that they will insist on a full vote of the union membership and that players have ample time to review the deal, sources said.
But the more time that goes by without closing the now comparatively narrow gap between the two sides, the more opportunity there will be for agents to apply pressure to the union -- and perhaps even encourage clients to hold a decertification vote, which would blow up the talks.
One of the people with direct knowledge of the super agents' strategy said at least two strong voices in that camp have quelled their pursuit of decertification, which would remove the process from the negotiating room and throw it into federal court under anti-trust law. Such a move at this stage, the person with knowledge of the agents' approach said, would inject too much chaos with a deal within reach.
As long as key system issues are preserved from the previous deal, one of the high-powered agents has told associates that he would accept 52 percent and "call it a wrap," a source said Tuesday. But the agent indicated his group is ready to advise clients to be willing to miss a month or more of games to achieve their goals.
"Our guys have indicated a willingness to miss games," Hunter said.
Recognizing the uncertainty and risk ahead, Fisher took direct aim Tuesday at the agents who have most vocally objected to the union's legal and bargaining strategies.
"The only people that really decide whether we accept and ratify a deal are the guys that are standing right here and the other 400-plus guys that aren't here right now," Fisher said, flanked by several committee members and superstars Bryant, Garnett and Pierce. "And not out of disrespect, I'm just not inclined to engage in a discussion about what a group that doesn't control any part of this process has to say."
If external forces and internal strife felt by both sides over failing to achieve everything they wanted can be held at bay, then the end is near. Labor negotiations that began more than two years ago in a joint news conference with Stern and Hunter at All-Star weekend in Phoenix will come full circle. On Tuesday, the league and the union held separate media briefings in adjacent rooms that somehow symbolized how close they really are.
What has happened in between -- a devastating initial proposal from the owners, disbelief from the players, lawsuits, unfair labor practice charges, scathing rhetoric and finally, day after day of fruitless, seemingly pointless, make-believe negotiations -- has gotten us here.
If they don't screw it up, we'll be able to look back on some of the lighter moments -- Roger Mason's "how u" tweet, "blogissists," the "50-50" cake and, finally, the dueling player-owner urinals -- and laugh.
Just do me a favor: Don't flush it now.