Commissioner David Stern floated it as an idea more than a firm proposal: a 50-50 revenue split.
Even so, the union's reply was unequivocal.
"They said, 'We can't do it."' according to Stern.
And with that, the remainder of the pre-season was lost and the first two weeks of the regular season moved to the brink of cancellation.
The NBA shelved the rest of its exhibition schedule Tuesday and will wipe out the first two weeks of the regular season if there is no labour agreement by Monday.
"We were not able to make the progress that we hoped we could make and we were not able to continue the negotiations," Stern said after nearly fours of talks between owners and players ended without gaining ground on a new deal.
No further meetings are scheduled, making it even more likely the league will lose games to a work stoppage for the first time since 1998-99, when the season was reduced to 50 games.
Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver said owners offered players a 50-50 split of basketball-related income. That's below the 57 per cent that players were guaranteed under the previous collective bargaining agreement, but more than the 47 per cent union officials said was formally proposed to them.
The only numbers that matter now, however, are the millions that stand to be lost when arenas go dark.
"The damage will be enormous," Silver said.
Players had offered to reduce their BRI guarantee to 53 per cent, which they said would have given owners back more than $1 billion US over six years. They say they won't cut it further, at least for now.
And they insist the 50-50 concept wasn't an even split, because it would have come after the league had already deducted $350 million off the top.
"Today was not the day for us to get this done," players' association president Derek Fisher said. "We were not able to get close enough to close the gap."
With superstars like Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett standing behind him, union executive director Billy Hunter said the players' proposal would have made up at least $200 million per season — a sizable chunk of the $300 million owners said they lost last season.
"Our guys have indicated a willingness to lose games," Hunter said.
The sides are also still divided on the salary-cap structure.
Training camps were postponed and 43 pre-season games scheduled for Oct. 9-15 were cancelled on Sept. 24. Both sides said they felt pressure to work toward a deal with deadlines looming before more cancellations would be necessary.
Stern said the owners had removed their demand for a hard salary cap, were no longer insisting on salary rollbacks, and would have given players the right to opt out of a 10-year agreement after seven years. But the money split was always going to be the biggest hurdle in these negotiations, with owners insistent on the ability to turn a profit after the league said 22 of its 30 teams lost money last season.
"We want to and have been willing to negotiate, but we find ourselves at a point today where we in some ways anticipated or expected to be, faced with a lockout that may jeopardize portions if not all of our season," Fisher said.
After hardly budging off their original proposal for 1 1-2 years, owners finally increased their offer to players from 46 to 47 per cent of BRI. It was then that the top negotiators discussed the 50-50 concept, and while Stern sounded disappointed that it didn't work, Silver was more frustrated.
"I am not going to get a good night sleep," he said. "After this afternoon's session, I would say I'm personally very disappointed. I thought that we should have continued negotiating today and I thought that there was potentially common ground on a 50-50 deal. I think it makes sense, it sounds like a partnership. There still would have been a lot of negotiating to do on the system elements, but I'm personally very disappointed."
On what both sides stressed was an important day, the owners' entire 11-man labour relations committee came to New York to meet with 11 players. They could still work something out before Monday's deadline, but neither side sounded optimistic.
"Right now, we had our committees, we gave it a really good run, and it didn't work," Stern said.
Hunter said the union would hold regional meetings with its players, set up workout centres and help in other ways. And many players — including Bryant, who has been in talks with an Italian team — will have to decide if they want to explore playing overseas.
And without a deal, the battle could go to the courts. Hunter said the union would have to consider decertification, and on Tuesday a federal court judge scheduled a hearing for Nov. 2 to hear arguments in the league's lawsuit against the players seeking a declaration that the lockout doesn't violate antitrust laws.
All things both sides hoped to avoid Tuesday.
"It wasn't to be, and we don't have any plans right now," Stern said.