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Original Issue

State Of The Union At a gathering in Las Vegas, locked-out NBA players put up a strong show of solidarity, but cracks in their association's foundation were beginning to show

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.

About 7,000 fans paid between $20 and $100 for tickets, and
although they were enthusiastic for a while, a significant
number of them were heading for the exits by the start of the
fourth quarter. As for player intensity, Portland Trail Blazers
forward Rasheed Wallace set the tone when he went down the bench
early in the game high-fiving every player and saying, "Don't
get hurt. Don't get hurt. Don't get hurt."

The exhibition only served to remind fans that there is no
substitute for a real NBA game. The players' appearance fees,
which ranged from $2,000 to $10,000, probably reminded them that
there is also no substitute for an NBA paycheck.

In the meantime the players could use a little more
public-relations savvy. They shouldn't talk about the hardship
of losing paychecks and then head for the high-stakes tables at
a casino, as Walker, Elden Campbell and Vlade Divac did after
last Thursday's meeting. And they shouldn't arrive for a charity
basketball game in a stretch limousine, as Mark Bryant did last

But public relations is far down the list of the union's concerns
these days. Regardless of its show in Vegas, the time is coming
for the players' association to do what smart gamblers sometimes
have to do--cut their losses.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Drive way In play typical of the Houston charity game, Nick Van Exel met little opposition from Avery Johnson as he went to the hole.