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On the front line

Bonner a key player in NBA labor negotiations

The NBA lockout has dragged on through the summer and now threatens the 2011-12 season. Under that pressure, negotiations between the players and owners will likely heat up in the coming weeks. When they do, a familiar redhead will be at the bargaining table with the league's heavy hitters.

Concord's Matt Bonner has been a player rep for the NBA Players Association for the last six years, dating back to the 2005-06 season when he was with Toronto, his second year in the league. This year, however, Bonner was voted in as one of the vice presidents of the NBPA Executive Committee, the group of nine players leading the union.

"As a player rep you're basically responsible for reporting to your team and being able to get the general opinion of your team on certain issues and then report to the executive committee," Bonner said. "Once you're on the executive committee, you're part of the front line of all the processes. You go to the actual negotiation sessions, you can vote on by-laws within the union, it's just a much more involved role."

Bonner spent much of June in New York City as the players and owners negotiated until the last minute before the lockout began on July 1. Like most everyone involved, Bonner isn't happy

with the situation. And trying to get his head around the complexities of the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement is no easy task. But he has relished the opportunity to be involved.

"It's an amazing learning experience. It's kind of cool sitting across a table from guys like David Stern and Mark Cuban and arguing the business of basketball with them," Bonner said. "You get to these negotiation sessions and you're there all day and you leave exhausted and with a giant headache. It's mentally exhausting. The CBA is so complicated and has so many different facets and intricacies. But it's just a great experience being part of something that not only affects yourself and every player in the league, but also every player in the league for years to come."

That may or may not include the upcoming year as the two sides remain very far apart. While some individual NBA teams are profitable, as a whole they're losing money (the league claimed 22 of its 30 teams operated at a loss last year). So there's no question the league's financial system needs to change, a fact that both payers and owners agree upon. The problem, of course, lies in how it will change.

The owners made the first proposal before last season. They wanted to reduce the players' total salary (roughly $2.2 billion) by $800 million and institute a hard salary cap of $45 million as opposed to the current soft cap (multiple exceptions are allowed for every team) of $58 million. As might be expected, it wasn't received well by the players. In fact, after hearing this offer, NBPA union director Billy Hunter told the players to prepare for a lockout and to miss a season.

As it stands now, the players' last proposal offered to give back $500 million in salary during a five-year span. That would reduce their share of the Basketball Related Income (as defined by the current CBA) from 57 percent to 54 percent. The owners countered with a deal that would cut total salaries by eight percent, putting them at $2 billion a year, and keeping them there for the next 10 years. The players aren't having it.

"If you punch in the projected growth numbers of the NBA, that eight percent goes to something like 12 percent in year two, 15 in year three, 17 in year four and so on, and by the end of the deal we'd only be getting 30 percent of the BRI," Bonner said. "We acknowledge the teams are losing money. We want to help them reach profitability as a league and we're willing to share that burden, but they want us to take all of it. And we want to share in some of the growth the NBA is going to experience as it moves forward."

Bonner emphasized that, "I speak for every player when I say, we want to play basketball." But he also made it clear that players are willing to miss games or even sit out the season. He said he would encourage players who showed an interest to go overseas and play to do just that, like he did in Italy in 2003-04 after graduating from the University of Florida.

"Guys are prepared to miss the season, but that's not what we want by a longshot. At the same time, we're not going to take an unfair deal that's going to hurt all the players that come after us," Bonner said. "Back in '98 (the last NBA lockout), they took a stand for us and missed half a season and that enabled us to enjoy the CBA we have now. It's always important to think it's not just about us, but also about the players that come after us and to make sure it's fair. We understand it's a recession and we understand we make a lot of money. We just want to make it fair."

The drop dead date for a canceled season is around Jan. 1, so the two sides have about four more months to make it fair. Whether or not they can do so remains to be seen.

"I have no idea. I really hope so. I really hope that the owners have some reason and are willing to compromise and work and get a fair deal for everybody," Bonner said. "We want to play basketball. That's what we love to do and we want the fans to be able to enjoy the game and watch us do our thing."

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