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NBA, union make peace with 6-year deal


SAN ANTONIO -- Someday, probably when their favorite players can or can't be re-signed, NBA fans will care deeply about the economic details agreed to and announced yesterday by the league and the players union.

Today, though, the issue everybody's tuned in to is the age minimum.

It was never a deal-breaker when commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter were playing chicken as a July 1 lockout date approached. But as far as the public, NBA fan or not, was concerned, this just-concluded labor fight was one big referendum on how old a player ought to be before he can become a millionaire on the basketball court.

The answer: 19. Even Hunter, after agreeing to the compromise, called the number "arbitrary," just as he'd called the league's demand for 20. Didn't matter if it was fair in the grand scheme of things. It sounds good. Not as good as 20, but 19 will do.

Yet once you forget the teenagers playing today at Wimbledon, participating tomorrow in the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament and preparing for any number of events at the next Olympics, you can see how the NBA's new age minimum will eventually work out.

(Just for the record: Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal, both 17 at the time of their respective drafts, would not be eligible under the new rules, but Paula Creamer was able to cash a winner's check for an LPGA tournament a week before her high school graduation. But we digress.)

For one thing, even Stern acknowledged that tweaking the eligibility rules and turning the still-jelling National Basketball Development League into something real, is something that's probably long overdue. "I wouldn't say it was a revolution. It may be something of a catching up with the rest of the world," he said yesterday.

It's never been proved that the NBA game is worse now than it was before high school players began skipping college in favor of the pros. But that's been the perception. Stern had stuck his finger to the wind on that a long time ago, and he pushed that agenda often, a smart move for someone representing owners who, deep down, were far more concerned with reining in killer long-term contracts.

Hunter never bought the hollering by the public about teenagers in the NBA, always sniffing it out as being related to when, and how much, teams wanted to pay the youngsters. With the rhetoric cooling yesterday as the deal was announced, Stern admitted that, in a way, he and Hunter were both right on that issue.

The owners wanted a better product, Stern said, but were also averse to paying young guys to sit and learn when a veteran (cheaper, of course) could help them win now.

"It was an interesting transformation that I saw in the course of the negotiation that I was hearing from the owners," Stern said, "and it made me feel very good: 'Let's look at the product.' "

Chances are, he's going to be proved right. It's new territory, but there is logic involved now where it didn't necessarily exist before. The age-19 minimum is balanced by a minimum of 18 for the minor league, which gives a desperately needed option to players who are less than academically inclined (or for those who prefer being paid market value for their skills).

The plan for NBA teams to be able to send players in their first two years to their assigned D-League team for seasoning also accomplishes the goal of improving the big-league product.

Maybe the most refreshing aspect of yesterday's announcement was the absence of any mention of "educating" the youth, a justification offered up way too often before. After a decade of shrieking about the damage the NBA was doing to higher education, the colleges have finally admitted, in the aftermath of one of the most riveting seasons in years, that their game is as healthy as ever.

Now, with the NBA moving toward a true minor league system, college ball might get into the honesty and integrity business. The more players who drop by just long enough to gain NBA eligibility, the more colleges can focus on those who really like being in college, and the more they can actually try to provide those players with an education, instead of using the best of them to make the coach and athletic director richer.

Any system that gives the Patrick Dennehys and Carlton Dotsons of the world a better option than a program like Baylor's, the better.

There's plenty of time, of course, for a dark side of this age-minimum plan to emerge. Hunter knows that the NBDL vision was a bone tossed at the union to ease the pain of that compromise. As for its actual effect, Hunter said, "I think the jury is still out."

The ideal of young basketball players earning a living with their skills, just like every other American, isn't totally gone. One can only hope the NBA's new deal will keep it alive.

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