NEW YORK -- The National Basketball Association and the players union reached an agreement in principle yesterday to all terms of a six-year collective bargaining agreement. If ratified by the players, the agreement would avoid a second consecutive summer lockout, and it would open the richest free-agent market in league history.
Without an agreement, the league would have imposed a lockout on its players on Monday, which would have prevented prominent free agents such as Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Juwan Howard and Reggie Miller from beginning negotiations. To give the players time to study the agreement, both sides agreed to a moratorium -- from July 1 until noon Eastern time July 9 -- on all player contract negotiations, signings and trades.
The union expressed confidence that the contract would be ratified, and that league business would resume on July 9. "I know this is an agreement that all the players will ratify," said Alex English, the acting director of the players union. "It's a much better deal. We gave, they gave."
Russ Granik, the league's deputy commissioner, also sounded as if he expected the agreement to be ratified.
"We're glad that we've been able to reach an agreement," Granik said. "We look forward on July 9 to refocusing our energies on continuing the worldwide growth of our sport over the next several years."
Over the next few days, the union will fax or mail a description of the agreement to players and contract ratification ballots. Those ballots must be returned to the union offices by July 8, and a simple majority of those voting is needed for ratification.
Final details of the agreement were worked out during lengthy four-day meetings this week in New York. A compromise was reached on the amount of money that the league would pay to the union for use of the union's logo. In exchange, the league increased the amount of money it would put in the players' pension fund. Issues involving the amount of money that would be allocated to the players through licensing deals also was agreed upon.
"I'm happy. Last year really stung, and I really wasn't optimistic about this year," said Anthony Hilliard, agent for Washington Bullets guard Robert Pack. "[Lockout] is just not good for the sport. Baseball really suffered -- and is still suffering -- from their labor pains. David Stern is a very smart man and I was hoping he would not travel down the road that was traveled before. It's best for everybody to stay in business."
The turning point occurred Thursday, when the two sides met for more than 12 hours until 11: 45 p.m. At that point, it became clear that a deal was at hand.
Commissioner David Stern and Granik headed the league's negotiating team. Jeffrey Kessler was the union's chief lawyer, but he was supported by numerous player representatives, including the union president, Buck Williams, Patrick Ewing, A. C. Green, Jim McIlvaine, Olden Polynice, B. J. Armstrong, Rex Walters, Chris Dudley, Herb Williams and Tyrone Corbin.
"The players were the key," English said. "We were unified. We had to be to get this deal done."
The agreement ends a long negotiating ordeal. Last June, the union's negotiating team, headed by Simon Gourdine, tentatively agreed to a deal. But that deal was rejected by the players. A group of dissident players, led by Ewing and Jordan, tried to have the union decertified, but that attempt failed when the players voted, 226-134, against decertification.
But the pressure from the dissidents led to further negotiations, and a new deal was tentatively agreed upon last September, ending a lockout. That deal was never signed by the players. And when the agreement was put on paper, the players and the league disagreed on several key points, leading to another dispute.
Gourdine was dismissed as head of the union in January, and Kessler replaced him as top negotiator.
"Another lockout would have been terrible for the sport," Kessler said. "We would have gone to court to try and prevent such a thing, but it's far better to negotiate at the table than in court."
Pub Date: 6/29/96