Seth Wenig, Associated Press
NEW YORK — Two years at the bargaining table led nowhere, so NBA players are ready to take their chances in a courtroom.
The players' association rejected the league's latest proposal for a new labor deal Monday and began disbanding, paving the way for a lawsuit that throws the season into jeopardy.
With All-Stars, role players, NBA champions and a new legal team crowding around them, union leaders announced the significant change in strategy, saying the collective bargaining process had "completely broken down."
"This is where it stops for us as a union," president Derek Fisher said.
And where the NBA's "nuclear winter" starts.
"We're prepared to file this antitrust action against the NBA," union executive director Billy Hunter said. "That's the best situation where players can get their due process."
And that's a tragedy as far as Commissioner David Stern is concerned.
"It looks like the 2011-12 season is really in jeopardy," Stern said in an interview aired on ESPN. "It's just a big charade. To do it now, the union is ratcheting up I guess to see if they can scare the NBA owners or something. That's not happening."
Hunter said players were not prepared to agree to Stern's ultimatum to accept the current proposal or face a worse one, saying they thought it was "extremely unfair." A day before players normally would have received their first paychecks, the NBPA's website greeted visitors Monday with the following message:
"Error 404: Basketball Not Found
Please be patient as we work on resolving this. We are sorry for the inconvenience.":
And they're aware what this battle might cost them.
"We understand the consequences of potentially missing the season; we understand the consequences that players could potentially face if things don't go our way, but it's a risk worth taking," union vice president Maurice Evans said. "It's the right move to do."
But it's risky.
Hunter said all players will be represented in a class-action suit against the NBA by attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and David Boies — who were on opposite sides of the NFL labor dispute, Kessler working for the players, Boies for the league.
"Mr. Kessler got his way, and we're about to go into the nuclear winter of the NBA," Stern told ESPN. "If I were a player ... I would be wondering what it is that Billy Hunter just did."
The league already has filed a pre-emptive lawsuit seeking to prove the lockout is legal and contends that without a union that collectively bargained them, the players' guaranteed contracts could legally be voided.
During oral arguments on Nov. 2, the NBA asked U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe to decide the legality of its lockout, but he was reluctant to wade into the league's labor mess. Gardephe has yet to issue a ruling.
Two years of bargaining couldn't produce a deal, with owners' desires for more competitive balance clashing with players' wishes to keep the salary cap system largely intact. The sides last met Thursday, when the league offered a revised proposal but told the players there would be no further negotiating on it.
Stern, who is a lawyer, had urged players to take the deal on the table, saying it's the best the NBA could offer and advised that decertification is not a winning strategy.
Players ignored that warning, choosing instead to dissolve the union, giving them a chance to win several billion dollars in triple damages in an antitrust lawsuit.
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