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June 30, 2011 6:31 PM

Dewey, Proskauer Banging in the Paint as NBA Heads for Lockout

Posted by Brian Baxter

Two Am Law 100 firms, known for their powerful sports practices, are across the table from one another once again as the National Basketball Association becomes the latest major North American professional sports league headed for a labor lockout.

Negotiations between management and players ended at about 3 p.m. Thursday and NBA commissioner David Stern was expected to urge owners and their labor committee to impose a lockout once the league's collective bargaining agreement expired at midnight.

Dewey & LeBoeuf global litigation chair Jeffrey Kessler, who also cochairs the firm's sports litigation practice, is advising the National Basketball Players Association along with sports litigation cochair David Feher.

Facing off against the Dewey team on behalf of the league: A Proskauer Rose squad led by sports law group cohead Howard Ganz, a former cochair of the firm's labor and employment group. (Ganz has also recently been serving as an adviser to Major League Baseball on a financial probe of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which filed for bankruptcy this week.)

The NBA's ties to Proskauer are extensive. In the early 1970s, Stern became the youngest in the firm's history to make partner (at the time) when he achieved that status at 32. He left the firm in 1978 to become the NBA's general counsel, moving into the commissioner's job six years later.

An NBA lockout would leave billions of dollars in annual revenue hanging in the balance and be the second pro sports shutdown in the last three months, with Dewey and Proskauer squaring off in both.

The two firm are already involved in a collective bargaining stalemate in the National Football League, which moved to lock out its players in March. The NFL and player representatives resumed labor talks in Minneapolis on Thursday, according to The Associated Press.

A lockout in the NBA is expected to drag on for months given that the two sides remain far apart on such issues as revenue sharing, guaranteed contracts, and a salary cap of the "hard" or "flexible" variety. (Our former colleague Zach Lowe, writing for SI.com, has the full breakdown on some of the issues separating players and owners.)

Kessler told Lowe that the league's final offer included setting the average player salary at about $7 million by the sixth year of a new labor pact. Kessler said such a proposal proves that the NBA is not as financially shaky as Stern and team owners want union officials--and the public--to believe.

"The NBA is projecting massive revenue growth," Kessler said. "If you give the players any percentage of revenue, no matter what it is, if the league's revenue grows massively, salaries will go up. Their statement about the average salary going up to $7 million must mean they think the NBA is going to be phenomenally successful, which we applaud."

It's unclear whether or not NBA players will opt to decertify their union, as their NFL counterparts did. NFL players are awaiting a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that could determine the future of their negotiating leverage against NFL owners.

Kessler told The Am Law Daily via e-mail that negotiations with the NBA "will continue as we try to get a fair deal and bring the lockout to an end." Ganz did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

The NBPA suffered a tragedy last month when its general counsel, Gary Hall, died in his sleep, apparently from natural cases. Hall, 67, joined the union in 2005 after leaving his job as a partner at Syracuse firm Blitman & King. The union itself is led by executive director G. William "Billy" Hunter, a former federal prosecutor.

The NBA's general counsel is Richard "Rick" Buchanan, a former associate at Covington & Burling.

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