NEW YORK -- In some of the strongest public comments he has ever made, National Basketball Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said Thursday the league's owners are trying to "break" the players' union.
"Their intention is to lock us out and break the union to achieve what they want to achieve," Hunter said following a meeting of player representatives from the 30 teams.
Collective bargaining talks will resume Friday after each side made new economic proposals Tuesday -- the players offering to reduce their share of revenues by $500 million over the next five years, and the owners proposing a 10-year system that would guarantee the players a minimum of $2 billion in salaries each season.
Hunter initially said he saw a "ray of light" after the owners made their proposal during Tuesday's bargaining session, but in the 48 hours since he has retreated substantially from any cautious optimism while saying the owners are overreaching by proposing draconian changes that would significantly shift the share of revenues in the owners' favor.
Union president Derek Fisher said Thursday that players won't accept a bad deal to avert a work stoppage.
"We'd love to avoid a lockout, but we're unified in the sense of not being afraid if that's what we're faced with," the Lakers guard said.
Flanked by 60 players -- including Kevin Garnett, whose $126 million contract extension in 1997 was a catalyst for the changes owners sought that led to the 1998 lockout, the only extended work stoppage in league history -- Hunter said he made his "ray of light" statement before thoroughly reviewing the owners' proposal.
"I think their real intentions are still what they were before, and I think that is to lock us out in an effort to break the union and to achieve what they want to achieve," Hunter said.
Asked to elaborate, Hunter responded: "The reason why I guess I make the statement, let me refer to the comment make by Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Wizards, and at one time his comment was that (commissioner) David Stern had promised NBA owners and those individuals who might be interested in purchasing a franchise the kind of deal that was foisted on NHL players. And we all know what happened in that situation: The union was broken after a year-long lockout, and the owners as a result have been able to impose upon those players the worst deal in all of professional sports.
"Now, [NBA owners] haven't been able to impose that deal on us yet, but what they are proposing even makes the NHL deal look good. So in order to get that, it is my belief that they have to do the same kind of damage, have to break the spirit and will and resolve of NBA players, in order to achieve what they want," Hunter said.
The verbal volley was the second in as many days from the union in the aftermath of Tuesday's negotiating session.
Said NBA spokesman Mike Bass: "A lockout is something that we are trying to avoid by making multiple offers that treat our players fairly. We are dismayed by the union's unfortunate rhetoric."
Players were particularly peeved that Stern termed their $500 million giveback "modest," and said the first time Stern ever mentioned a targeted median team salary of $62 million under a proposed "flex-cap" system was when the commissioner told that number to reporters in a news conference following Tuesday's bargaining session.
On Wednesday, Hunter and Fisher revealed that the owners also were asking for $160 million in funds that were withheld from players' paychecks last season as part of the "escrow tax" system -- a mechanism to ensure that players receive no more than 57 percent of basketball-related income. That money is due to be disbursed to players in August.
The union also claimed the 10-year deal being proposed by the owners would result in a net loss of $7 billion to $8 billion in salaries over the next decade, with the $2.17 million in salaries and benefits that were paid out in the 2010-11 season not being eclipsed until the 10th year of the proposed deal.
The current labor agreement expires June 30 after a season in which the league's attendance, ratings, merchandise sales and overall popularity were all on the rise.
The owners have argued that they want a new system that guarantees every team a chance to compete for a championship and a chance to be profitable, while the players have countered that the owners' concerns can be addressed by tweaking the current system and increasing the sharing of local television revenues to give the owners a larger slice of the financial pie.
In their latest proposal for a five-year agreement, the players proposed receiving 54.6 percent of basketball-related income over the first several seasons, and 55 percent in the final season.
If there is an impasse and a lockout is imposed, the players would not begin to feel the financial pain until Nov. 15 -- the date the first paychecks of the 2011-12 season are due.
"Let's keep in mind that the owners are wealthy, they're wealthy, and they could possibly survive something. Our players are rich. At one time, everybody espoused to be rich. But in the last 10-20 years the paradigm has shifted. And now we talk in terms of wealth," Hunter said. "Our players live handsomely as long as they're playing basketball, and after their careers are over -- many of which are short -- they're no longer rich, and they don't get to become wealthy. If, in fact, we agree to what is being proposed by the NBA, then many of the owners will become even wealthier than they are now."
Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics, the Clippers' Blake Griffin, the Hornets' Chris Paul and Jason Terry of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks were among the 60 players who joined Fisher at the front of the news conference.
Garnett, who plans to attend Friday's bargaining session, said the owners' latest proposal reflects an evolving trend of the owners and the league office trying to seize "control" of all aspects of the basketball business.
"I just think it's domination of the game. Like how they went from a certain number in fines and then went to another number without even consulting with any of our officials, or Derek or Billy. [Another example is] the ball. A couple years ago they just up and changed the ball. I can only anticipate NBA Entertainment getting a lot more aggressive in their exposure to the locker room. Look at the whole dynamics of it, and it's just control. That's my opinion," Garnett said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.