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NBA locked out; season in jeopardy

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / July 1, 2011

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Any hopes the NBA and its Players Association would avoid the same path as their NFL brethren were squelched yesterday afternoon when the sides agreed to disagree on a new collective bargaining agreement, and the owners instituted the second lockout in league history.

At 12:01 a.m. this morning, the owners banned teams from contacting or paying players, making transactions, or allowing players to participate in any team-sponsored projects.

According to league sources, the owners are willing to potentially wipe out the 2011-12 season to change the economic system. A handful of NBA owners have ties to the NHL, where a lockout caused the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, and are convinced the players will eventually cave.

The league already had canceled summer leagues in Orlando and Las Vegas in anticipation of a work stoppage, and yesterday’s news was expected. Commissioner David Stern has claimed that 22 teams are losing money and the current soft salary cap, in which the players get 57 percent of the league’s basketball-related revenue, is a flawed system.

“A lockout has a very large impact on a lot of people, many of whom are not associated with either side,’’ Stern said following yesterday’s meeting. “And that’s why we had hoped that the proposal on which we had no choice to end the negotiation would have been better, really, and would have given us a different choice [than to lock out players]. But we didn’t see any other option but to make the recommendation that we’re going to make to the labor relations committee.’’

The Players Association has insisted it won’t approve any semblance of a hard salary cap, which would allow teams to release players without full compensation because of their salaries. Two weeks ago, the owners backed down from their insistence of no guaranteed contracts, but the players contend that limiting the amount teams can pay their players is a form of a hard cap.

Players Association executive director Billy Hunter said after the negotiations, “It’s obvious the lockout will happen.’’ He added the sides are expected to meet again in two to three weeks.

“We’ve been trying to arrive at a win-win for both sides. That’s part of the difficulty,’’ Hunter said. “I’m hoping over the next month or so that there will be a softening maybe on their side and maybe we have to soften our position, as well. But right now, it’s unpredictable. We almost have three months before the season starts. Although I would assume that if we get into August and there’s vendors and sponsors [teams] are trying to deal with, the question is how much will have been lost. So, I think that’s added pressure on them and us to get something done.’’

Hunter said the Players Association will not follow the NFL players’ union by decertifying, which would allow individual players to file lawsuits against the league for unfair labor practices, i.e. not allowing willing employees to work. Hunter said that action will not be necessary.

“We agreed we would not let the imposition of the lockout stop us from meeting,’’ Hunter said. “It’s been extremely cordial. It was almost like we were going to sing ‘Kumbaya’ in the end. I couldn’t believe it. We were all shaking hands, saying, ‘We’ll see you in a couple of weeks and have a good Fourth of July weekend.’ ’’

The last lockout limited the 1998-99 season to 50 games. Patrick Ewing, during the latter stages of his career, was president of the players’ union, and the perception was that he and other veterans hastily agreed to a new deal to continue their careers.

“It’s not just about [the owners] standing firm. We’re just as firm. We’re standing together. We’re strong. We’re unified,’’ said Hornets guard Chris Paul, a member of the union’s executive committee. “We all talk. As long as we stay on the same page like we are right now, I think everything will work out fine.’’

This labor upheaval comes on the heels of one of the most successful seasons in league history, with the Finals between the Mavericks and Heat earning its second-highest ratings in seven years. A league that had experienced trouble moving on after the Michael Jordan era seemed to have finally established new stars and a new identity.

“We made every attempt to try to make some progress,’’ said union president Derek Fisher of the Lakers. “Our fans, although we won’t miss any games at this point, still just don’t like the prospect of a lockout. We don’t like it, either. It’s something that our owners feel like is the best way to get what they want. We don’t agree. We’re still going to continue to negotiate in the midst of this lockout. And we’re going to keep working hard to make sure that we are able to continue to build on this momentum that NBA basketball is facing right now.’’

Now comes the second work stoppage in 13 years, and the possibility of losing the fans’ trust.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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