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NBA owners, players making progress on deal, but lockout still looms

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Even as the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons face off on the NBA's grandest stage, a possible work stoppage casts a shadow on the league's horizon.

As recently as the All-Star break in February, commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter said they foresaw smooth contract negotiations that could wrap before the regular season ended.

But in recent weeks, league officials, union representatives and agents spoke less optimistically, with some saying a long, crippling stoppage was possible.

The tide seemed to turn again yesterday in New York as the sides met for the first time in two weeks.

After an 11-hour session that lasted past 10 p.m. EDT, deputy commissioner Russ Granik said, "We made significant progress. ... We will convene again in small groups over the course of the weekend and reconvene the larger group Tuesday morning."

Hunter and Stern have said the standoff could be long and bitter if a deal is not reached before the deadline.

"If July 1 comes and there's a lockout, the union will have made a mistake of epic proportions that I don't think the average member of the rank and file understands is taking place," Stern said last weekend.

On Wednesday, Hunter said a lockout could be a "death knell" for the league.

Despite the gloomy rhetoric, neither side lists any issue as a deal breaker.

Stern said the owners have moved toward compromise and listed drug testing, a player age minimum and contract lengths as the main outstanding issues. But players and agents disagree, saying other economic issues lurk behind the scenes.

"The sticking point is that the league made tremendous advances the last time, and now, they want to add even more to what is a great, great system from the owners' standpoint," said Mark Bartelstein, a Chicago-based agent who represents a large stable of NBA players.

Sports marketing analysts say the league is risking real damage to its fan base.

"What they risk is structurally alienating the fans to the point that interest is lessened on a permanent basis," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant.

The NBA last endured a work stoppage in 1998-99, when a seven-month lockout shortened the regular season to 50 games.

Many observers saw the agreement that came out of that standoff as a major victory for the owners. The league was the first to impose individual salary limits on veterans and to impose limits on contract durations for rookies and free agents.

Though players fought bitterly against that agreement, they would now be satisfied to keep it. But the owners rejected a union request to extend the deal.

Contract length

The biggest outstanding issues this time are the maximum length of contracts, maximum annual raises, a proposed premium tax to penalize the biggest-spending teams, proposed year-round drug testing and a proposal to keep players under the age of 19 out of the draft.

Under current rules, owners can give maximum contracts up to six years for players signing with new teams and up to seven years for players re-signing with the same team.

Owners initially wanted to lower the maximum lengths to three and four years, but Stern said they had offered a compromise at five and six years.

Owners say the reductions would allow teams to dispose of bad signings more quickly without reducing the 57 percent of basketball-related income going to players.

The players have said they might accept five- and six-year maximums. But some agents say the owners have won enough concessions, creating restrictions on contract length that don't exist in any other major pro league.

"If they don't want to sign players to long-term deals, don't do it," Bartelstein said.

Owners also want to decrease maximum raises from 10 percent a year to as low as 5 percent a year, but the players want the maximum increased to as much as 15 percent a year.

Luxury tax

Regarding the increased luxury tax, franchises already pay a dollar for every dollar they spend above 61 percent of basketball-related income - a figure that was about $54 million last year.

The owners hope to add a further tax of $2 for every $1 spent over an undetermined, higher number. Players argue such a tax would unfairly penalize them for owners' indiscretions.

Other financial matters that could be in play include owner proposals to eliminate a guaranteed year from rookie contracts.

Among non-financial issues, the age minimum, a Stern favorite, has been the most-discussed aspect of negotiations. The commissioner said he's already been flexible in moving from 20 to 19. He says the league would have a better image if scouts and agents were not crowding high school gyms in search of talent.

Union officials say that by keeping 17- and 18-year-olds out of the league, the owners are conveniently saving themselves the likelihood of having to offer two maximum contracts to future stars. But the players might accept a 19-year-old minimum with an exception for players drafted in the lottery.

Dan Rosenbaum, an economist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who has consulted for the union, argues that the league has hastened the flood of high schoolers and underclassmen by placing salary restrictions on the first four years of player contracts.

"It really sticks in my craw that they want to impose age limits as a response to a whole series of provisions they have put in that have made it almost impossible for players to want to stay in school," Rosenbaum said.

Drug testing

League officials want year-round tests for performance enhancers and recreational narcotics. The NBA has avoided the steroid controversies that have beset baseball and football, but Stern said he wants the league to be above reproach.

When Stern and Hunter testified before a congressional committee last month, they seemed to agree that enhanced testing is necessary, but Granik said the union has been reluctant to accept the league's testing proposal without demanding more money in exchange.

The players, meanwhile, have said they would accept more testing but have not publicly specified how much.

With a possible lockout less than two weeks away, negotiators on both sides cautioned against taking such a stoppage for granted.

"The thing that concerns me the most is this notion that, well, so there will be a lockout, so they won't have summer camps, contracts won't get signed, people will go on vacation ... and then they will put it together in September," Granik said. "But labor disputes tend not to work so easily, and then once the ball starts rolling, things tend to get more difficult rather than less."

Points of contention

Main issues in NBA labor negotiations:

A minimum age of 19

Year-round testing for performance-enhancing and recreational drugs

Shorter maximum lengths for veteran contracts

Smaller maximum raises for veterans

A "super tax" for the biggest-spending teams

Changes in the spending triggers for luxury and escrow taxes designed to limit player salaries

NBA Finals

San Antonio vs. Detroit

Best of seven; *-if necessary

All games on chs. 2, 7 (Series tied 2-2)

Game 1: San Antonio, 84-69 Game 2: San Antonio, 97-76 Game 3: Detroit, 96-79 Game 4: Detroit, 102-71 Tomorrow: at Detroit, 9 p.m. T

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