NEW YORK // America is on the brink of a year without basketball as NBA players are ready to take their long drawn out dispute with the owners to the courtroom.
After two years at the bargaining table, the National Basketball's Players' Association (NBPA) rejected the league's latest proposal for a new labour deal on Monday and began disbanding, paving the way for a lawsuit that throws the season into jeopardy.
"This is where it stops for us as a union," Derek Fisher, the president, said.
And where the NBA's "nuclear winter" starts.
"We're prepared to file this antitrust action against the NBA," Billy Hunter, the union executive director, said. "That's the best situation where players can get their due process."
And that is a tragedy as far as David Stern, the commissioner, is concerned. "It looks like the 2011/12 season is really in jeopardy," Stern said in an interview 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 pay cheques, the NBPA's website greeted visitors on Monday with the message: "Error 404: Basketball Not Found. Please be patient as we work on resolving this."
And they are 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," Maurice Evans, the union vice-president, said. "It's the right move to do."
But it is risky.
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 November 2, the NBA asked the US District Judge Paul Gardephe to decide the legality of its lockout, but he has yet to issue a ruling. Two years of bargaining could not 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 on 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 is the best the NBA could offer and advised that decertification is not a winning strategy.
Players ignored that warning. "This is the best decision for the players," Fisher said. "I want to reiterate that point, that a lot of individual players have a lot of things personally at stake in terms of their careers and where they stand."
The first month of a season that was scheduled to begin two weeks ago has already been cancelled.