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NBA might be on thin ice

Commissioner is wary of potential lockout

WASHINGTON -- Good thing U2 has booked two nights at the FleetCenter in October. Otherwise, the arena could be dark all month.

With no end in sight to the NHL's eight-month lockout, NBA commissioner David Stern yesterday raised the grim possibility that league owners could join their hockey counterparts in shuttering their sport over a labor squabble. Stern abruptly suspended negotiations with the players' union Wednesday and gave no indication yesterday he was prepared to resume talks before the current collective bargaining agreement expires June 30.

''I'm concerned there will be a lockout, and we all know what can happen when you have a lockout," Stern said after he testified before the House Committee on Government Reform about the league's steroid policy. ''I don't want to make dire predictions, but I'm experienced, unfortunately, in these matters, and I worry where we're going from here."

Stern raised the specter of a stoppage similar to a lockout that dragged on for seven months in 1998 and 1999 before the sides reached their current six-year agreement. He blamed the latest snag on the union backing away from tentative agreements on several key issues.

''I've gone from hopeful to perplexed and, ultimately, to despairing because I don't know if there is going to be the ability to make a deal," Stern said.

Union director Billy Hunter struck a more optimistic theme, though he asserted the league acted in a racist fashion by suggesting that agents for NBA players have wielded undue influence on him during the negotiations.

''This is just a bump in the road," Hunter said after sharing a witness table in the committee room with Stern. ''Sooner or later, they're coming back to the table."

The high-stakes standoff involves several major issues, including the parameters of a salary cap, the length of maximum contracts, and a minimum age for NBA players. Stern said Hunter appeared poised last month to accept a deal that would have collectively boosted the players' guaranteed share of league revenues from $10 billion to $12 billion.

''The reality was, we thought we were close to a deal, and now we're not," Stern said. ''We are not sure how we are ever going to get one if the present situation continues."

Hunter suggested Stern was overreacting or, at the very least, posturing.

''The reality is, there have been numerous occasions in the course of the negotiations in which the NBA has elected to put things on the table and take them off," Hunter said. ''When they've done that, I've raised no objection. In fact, I've often joked about it. But whenever we resort to that tactic, it's characterized as being unprofessional, unfair, whatever."

What's more, Hunter said, ''We didn't have a deal. We never had a deal."

He said he was particularly irked by the league's ''racist" suggestions that he abandoned support for several key elements of a proposal after meeting with a group of agents. He said the suggestions were made directly by Stern to him and in a prepared statement issued Wednesday by NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik.

''I went through this seven years ago when there was all this rhetoric about who was running the show," Hunter said. ''I just think it's a tactic the commissioner and the NBA uses. When they pushed that button this time, I just thought it was appropriate to respond."

''I don't know what he's talking about," Stern said. ''I've worked with him for years. I think he's a solid leader, and I think those kinds of statements are below him."

Stern denied he suggested that agents were ''running the show." But he cited a report by ESPN.com quoting agents who were pleased that Hunter backed away from the proposed agreement a day after they met.

''The agents were quite happy to tell the media how strongly opposed they were to the deal," Stern said. ''I think that's unfortunate, but that's where we are. And, frankly, whether it's the union or the agents or the players, let's assume it's all of them against the parameters of the deal, then there won't be a deal."

Hunter described the influence of agents on his decisions as ''nil." He indicated Stern was mistaken to believe he had tentatively committed to several key provisions, including reducing the maximum length of contracts to five years from seven. And Hunter said the league failed to grant the union the concessions it sought in return for supporting elements of the proposed pact.

''We're not going to do a bad deal," Hunter said. ''I won't agree to an unlimited cutback in the length of contracts for players, and we're not going to agree to a hard salary cap. That's what this is all about. We're back to where we were in 1998."

In Stern's view, that could signal a protracted impasse.

''I'm not confident," he said. ''We're confounded as to how we can make a deal at this point."


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