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Players' union braces for contentious bargaining

NEW YORK -- One of the byproducts of last weekend's NBA
brawl could be a poisoned atmosphere in collective bargaining
talks.

At a time when they should be negotiating a new labor agreement,
lawyers for the NBA and the players' union are about to fight a
side battle -- an appeal of the lengthy suspensions given to Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal -- that could exacerbate an already contentious relationship.

Just six years ago, the league and union went through a lengthy
lockout that forced cancellation of nearly half of the 1998-99
season.

That was a low point, and nearly all the principle players from
that battle -- starting with NBA commissioner David Stern and union
director Billy Hunter and including most of the staff attorneys --
still hold the same jobs.

"This is a relationship that's dysfunctional at best. The well
is already so poisoned, it would be difficult to poison it even
more," said Robert Lanza, a labor attorney who was the lead
in-house counsel for the Players Association during the 1998-99
lockout. "A lot of issues that should be dealt with as a team are
not dealt with that way."

The union's attorneys asked Tuesday that an arbitrator review
the suspensions Stern handed out to Artest (the rest of the
season), Jackson (30 games) and O'Neal (25 games) for brawling with
fans at Friday night's Pacers-Pistons game.

Sole discretion in deciding punishment for on-court behavior
rests with the commissioner, who also is the only avenue of appeal.

The union wants to maneuver around that rule, which is in the
collective bargaining agreement, by trying to send the case to an
arbitrator, Roger Kaplan, who was relieved of his duties two months
ago when the owners declined to renew his term.

The league and the union have not agreed on a replacement for
Kaplan, the emergency grievance arbitrator until his successor is
named.

"I don't know what involvement, if any, I'll have with his
case," Kaplan said Wednesday, declining further comment.

If recent history provides a guide, Kaplan could be the
emergency arbitrator for quite some time. The post of systems
arbitrator, to resolve salary cap-related disputes, has been vacant
since Kenneth Dam left in 2001, because the sides haven't agreed on
a replacement.

Preliminary collective bargaining negotiations have been
described as cordial. Each side has already defined its major areas
of concern, but wide gaps remain on many of the major core issues.

Neither side wants a repeat of the battle waged six years ago,
but there is a growing concern among players that another lockout
could be coming.

"I feel it's inevitable," Toronto's Jalen Rose said earlier
this season.

Absent some sort of conciliatory gesture from Stern, the
relationship between the league and union in the weeks and months
ahead figures to remain adversarial at best.

People close to Stern and Hunter say there is some uneasiness
between the two men, and the union's decision to fight the
suspensions doesn't figure to strengthen the relationship. Each
side doesn't entirely trust the other, and no gestures of
compromise were made as the unprecedented events of the past week
unfolded.

"We can still do both. We can litigate the suspensions and
negotiate the CBA. One issue should not impact the other," Hunter
said.

Stern, through a spokesman, declined comment.