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Just beating buzzer, NBA unlocks season; With only day left to make deal, owners, players union agree


NEW YORK -- On the eve of a deadline that threatened the 1998-1999 National Basketball Association season -- and possibly, the future of the league -- the NBA and its players union reached an agreement yesterday that ends a six-month lockout.

NBA Commissioner David Stern and Players Association Director Billy Hunter reached the deal at 6: 30 a.m. yesterday after a secret meeting that lasted through the night, and the players ratified the deal yesterday afternoon by a 179-5 vote during a meeting at the union offices.

Today, owners are expected to agree formally to the deal as well.

The outcome of the vote, coming just one day before the owners were to vote on a recommendation to cancel the season: A 52-game NBA season will begin Feb. 2, with training camps expected to begin no later than Jan. 18.

"It's a surprise [the two sides] talked, but I'm glad they did and I'm glad they came to an agreement," San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson said after the players meeting. "This thing was real ugly, not only for us, but for everyone.

"Now what we have to do is get together and re-establish some confidence with the fans and just show everyone just how much we do feel about this game."

What closed the deal was that both sides, despite their "final offers" of the past 10 days, made concessions during the overnight meeting. Critical to the deal was accord on the amount of basketball revenue paid to players, with both sides agreeing to 55 percent in the final three years of the six-year deal. In the first three years, the percentages are 52, 53 and 54. The players would get 57 percent if the owners pick up the optional seventh year.

Previously, the union had sought 57 percent in the final years of the deal, while the NBA held firm at 54 percent.

With the new deal, the NBA becomes the first major professional sports league to impose amaximum on player salaries. Under the agreement, players with 10 or more years of experience may not be paid more than $14 million. Limits on veterans with under 10 years run from $9 million to $11 million.

Rookies will have set salaries, determined by where they were drafted in the first round. Their contracts will be five years, as opposed to three under the old agreement.

Stern said in a statement: "I expect the agreement to be ratified by the board of governors at tomorrow's meeting. I have agreed with Billy Hunter that I will not discuss the agreement in detail until after its approval by the board. I will say that I am elated that we will be playing basketball this season."

Hunter called the deal "fair for both sides."

"The players at the top agreed that we'd be subject to some cap, and we agreed the money would go to the players in the middle and at the bottom," Hunter said. "Now, we feel like we have a good deal for everyone."

Hunter reaches out

That deal may not have been reached except that Hunter -- perhaps sensing a divisive meeting among players -- picked up his phone at 6 p.m. Tuesday and reached out to Stern.

"I called David and asked if he was inclined to talk," Hunter said. "And he said, 'Yes, we'd love to talk.' "

And so Hunter made the short trip to the NBA offices here to meet with Stern. A plus to the deal may have been Hunter's going into that meeting without union president Patrick Ewing, whom many have perceived to be a puppet for agent David Falk. Some said Falk was running the union through many of his high-profile clients, who held key positions on the negotiating committee.

Stern left those meetings on Tuesday night briefly to make several previously scheduled television appearances. Hunter continued talks with deputy commissioner Russ Granik until Stern rejoined the group shortly after 11 p.m. The two sides negotiated into the early morning, finally reaching an agreement about 6: 30 a.m. yesterday.

"We knew time was of the essence," Hunter said. "He felt compelled to get something done, and we felt compelled to do the same."

What may have compelled Hunter was the apparently growing dissatisfaction among players, some of whom were becoming more vocal about their displeasure with the union leadership. Charles Barkley, Jayson Williams and Karl Malone were among the players who publicly said the league's offer put on the table last month was fair.

But Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo -- all Falk clients -- were recommending the union reject the owners' deal. In the days before the meeting, Ewing said: "We're going to put [the offer] to the test, but we're going to make sure [players] stand by their negotiating committee."

Disagreement among players

A number of union members disagreed. The players had already lost a combined half-billion dollars in salary, and faced the prospect of missing an entire season without pay. And Stern warned that, if the season were lost, the league would start play in the fall with replacement players if necessary. So, many players arrived in New York Tuesday in a combative frame of mind.

"This could have been really heated, in terms of people voicing their opinions," said Washington Wizards guard Calbert Cheaney. "But luckily, fortunately, it didn't happen."

When asked whether the high-profile players had taken too much control on the bargaining committee, Detroit Pistons forward Jerome Williams, a committee member who was eager to resume the season, said: "It might have looked that way, but there's power in numbers.

"Once again, the guys off the bench saved the day, in overtime," Williams said. "The franchise players get in foul trouble, we got to come in and do the work. We needed to get us into the playoffs, and that's what we did."

Stern today formally will present the agreement to the league's board of directors. Training camp, as well as what's expected to be a hectic free-agent signing period, will start Jan. 18.

Teams will not pick up their regular schedules once the season starts; the league will devise a new schedule. And it's likely teams will play mostly within their conference, with each club playing as many as four games a week.

That might be a lot to ask of players, many of whom are out of shape and some of whom haven't played since the end of last season.

With the start of the playoffs pushed back two weeks, it's possible the NBA Finals won't end until July. There is almost no chance, however, that the postseason will last past July 4.

Who's likely to end up in those finals? The league's defending champions, the Chicago Bulls, may not be there. The Bulls are one of the NBA's most unsettled teams. Only three of the Bulls are under contract, not including superstar Michael Jordan, who has yet to say whether he will retire.

But most players just seem happy to be returning to the court, getting paid and attempting to win back fans -- many of whom apparently didn't care about the NBA lockout.

"I'm glad it's over with," Barkley said. "It's been very detrimental to the game, and it's unfortunate."

"There's some good things about the deal and some bad things about it," said New Jersey Nets center Jayson Williams. "I'm just proud we came together and were very intelligent about this whole situation. They could have done this way back in August."

Said veteran guard Scott Brooks: "The best thing that happened was [the NBA] putting a deadline in place. If there wasn't a deadline, maybe this wouldn't have been done."

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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