NBA players yesterday voted overwhelmingly against decertifying their union, clearing the way for the season to begin on time.
In voting tallied in the New York office of the National Labor Relations Board, the players, by a margin of 226-134, decided not to decertify their union, raising hope that the league will begin its regular season as scheduled Nov. 3.
"The players want to play basketball," said Portland Trail Blazers forward Buck Williams, president of the players union. "We believe we got a fair agreement."
Now, if player representatives from 27 NBA teams approve the collective-bargaining agreement during meetings in Chicago today (21 have to approve the six-year deal), and the league owners do the same during a teleconference that could come as early as Friday, the NBA is expected to end a lockout that was imposed July 1 and prepare to open training camps Oct. 6.
"Obviously, we're pleased by the elections," said Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner of the NBA, who joined commissioner David Stern during a conference call last night. "To have the union continue to represent them in collective bargaining, we think is a pretty overwhelming statement by the players.
"It's our hope by as early as next Monday we can lift the lockout and be back in business."
It was a triumphant day for Stern, as the league was able to hold off an effort by a group of agents, lawyers and dissident players seeking decertification. That group -- led by agent David Falk and attorney Jeffrey Kessler and fronted by superstars such as Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing -- believed decertifying the union would allow players to work out a labor deal better than the one that was tentatively agreed to by the union and the league Aug. 8.
The dissident group, which was concerned about limits on salaries and player movement, thought it had enough backing to win.
"Of course, I'm disappointed by the vote," Kessler told reporters outside the NLRB headquarters in New York. "I still believe this is a terrible vote for the players and they will regret it for a long time."
There's still a concern that the group will challenge the election on the grounds that the players were intimidated by the threat of a work stoppage, and Sacramento Kings guard Mitch Richmond has filed an unfair labor complaint with the NLRB. But Stern is confident the vote will hold up.
"I think there's a possibility there will be further challenges," Stern said. "But I'm not sure there's such a thing as a decertification force. Our players, even those who cast negative votes, are ready to start the season under this deal."
The deal includes the following provisions:
* A salary cap for rookies. A first-round pick will get a guaranteed three-year contract. The player will be paid the average of the salaries of the past seven players picked at that position.
* After the 1995-96 season, players will become unrestricted free agents at the conclusion of their contracts or when they exercise a termination clause.
* Beginning in June 1998, the annual college draft will last one round.
Even though there wasn't a loss of actual games during the lockout -- Houston Rockets guard Kenny Smith likened the off-season lockout to closing a barber shop on Monday, "when the barber shops always are closed on Monday" -- Stern said some damage control is necessary.
"There has been damage," Stern said. "There's damage from a public relations perspective, and from a licensing perspective. You can't have a summer like ours, and not have an impact.
"If we spend the next three weeks trying to catch up for the last three months, we can minimize the damage that's been done."
Should the NBA get back to business as usual Monday, it will leave teams scrambling in the weeks before the start of training camp.
"Obviously it's going to compress a summer's worth of activities into 2 1/2 weeks," said Washington Bullets general manager John Nash. "We have a lot of things we want to address. We're encouraged that we may be able to get back to work."
The main order for business for the Bullets will be to sign forward Chris Webber to a long-term contract. Signing rookie Rasheed Wallace should be an easier task: Under the new labor agreement, there is a cap on rookie salaries and their contracts are limited to a maximum of three years.
A tougher task for the Bullets will be finding a point guard, which the team will attempt to do via the free-agent route. The Philadelphia 76ers' Dana Barros and the Phoenix Suns' Elliot Perry are the leading candidates.
"We need to get some guard help," Nash said. "We'd like to pursue the free-agent market and get one or two free agents. If that doesn't happen, we'd want to pursue a trade. [The lack of time] will force people to make decisions quickly."