The NBA, holding a consecutive games record that would make Cal Ripken envious, looks ready to sacrifice the streak.
The league's perfect record of never having lost a game to labor strife -- that's 35,001 in a row, or 13 1/2 times Ripken's total -- went into serious peril this week when chances dimmed for a resumption of collective bargaining talks before the scheduled opening of training camps.
"At some point you have to elect to deal with the lesser of two evils, and I think we've concluded that to once again make a bad economic deal is even worse that what'll flow from losing games," deputy commissioner Russ Granik told The Associated Press, strongly indicating that the league-imposed lockout will last into the fall and perhaps the winter.
"What's changed here is there's a sense that we're not going to do whatever it takes to make a deal. We've got to have a fair one."
In other words, the NBA is prepared -- some would say planning -- to sacrifice games in November and December in the hopes it will put pressure on players as they miss paychecks, leading to a better collective bargaining agreement for the owners.
"There are different types of lost games," Granik said, comparing the NBA's labor woes to Major League Baseball and its disastrous strike of 1994, which started during the pennant race and forced the cancellation of the World Series.
"Obviously here, ours, if we lose games, will be at the beginning of the season. It might go all season, but at least it's not going to start at the climax of the season and go from there," Granik said.
An arbitration hearing on whether owners should have to pay guaranteed contracts during the lockout is on a nine-day hiatus and isn't scheduled to end until Sept. 8. Post-hearing briefs must be filed by Sept. 15, and arbitrator John Feerick will then have 30 days to render his verdict.
By that time, the Oct. 6 start of training camps might have already passed. The lockout will enter its third month Tuesday with the sides having met for formal bargaining a grand total of one time during that span. That session ended abruptly when the owners walked out of the room upon hearing the players' latest proposal.
Another bargaining session in June -- eight days before the lockout began -- ended after only 30 minutes when the players declared they would not even listen to a proposal that includes a weakening of the Larry Bird exception, the rule that allows teams to exceed the salary cap to retain their own free agents.
Two months of rhetoric, harsh words and allegations of delaying tactics haven't brought any progress. September will begin with the sides far apart on the key issue -- an economic system that will slow down or limit the growth of player salaries enough to make the owners happy.
The owners have proposed several changes to the current operating system, asking for an eight-year deal.
Proposals have included several different salary limitation mechanisms: A phase-in of a "hard" salary cap with almost no exceptions, a maximum salary of 30 percent of the cap (excepting players already over that threshold, but limiting their raises to 5 percent), a phase-out of the Bird exception that would include a grandfather clause for current 10-year veterans, and an elimination of the $1 million salary cap exception that each team can use every other year, regardless of whether they are over the salary cap, to sign an additional player.
"I can see what (baseball) suffered, and all we can do is hope that fans will understand the situation that owners find themselves in," Granik said. "And I think the fans do realize that it can't make sense for top NBA players to be making $20-$25 million a year when top players in other sports are making between $8 and $12 million. "
"When it comes to missing games, fans don't want to hear about it. But the best we can do is try and explain it as well as we can and hope they'll understand the problem."
The owners had the right to toss out the old collective bargaining agreement if player salaries exceeded 51.8 percent of basketball-related income (BRI), and that number jumped to 57 percent in the 1997-98 season.
The players offered to slow future cap growth if the BRI number hit 63 percent, then replaced that proposal with one that would shrink the current 20-percent limit on year-to-year raises.
In addition, the players have asked that the $1 million exception become a $2.5 exception available every season, and that a $3 million "lottery exception" be available every year to non-playoff teams.
"Their proposal takes care of all the players even better than they are today. That's what's wrong with it. Our 57 percent would go to 60 or 65 percent," Granik said, his voice rising and filling with disdain more than any other time during a 45-minute discussion.
A deal would have to be in place by miOctober, at the absolute latest, to save the 82-game season that is scheduled to start Nov. 4.
Even then, it would lead to a three-week scramble to open camps, sign players, make trades and sneak in an exhibition game or two.
There are more than 150 free agents, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Rod Strickland, Charles Barkley and Antonio McDyess; 58 rookies who were not signed after they were drafted; and a few teams, including Houston, Phoenix and Orlando, who have only three to five players signed for next season.
Perhaps the only way the season will start on time is if Feerick rules quickly and the sides meet in late September and early October.
But Granik insisted the league won't give in just to save the perfect record, which the Elias Sports Bureau calculated at 35,001 consecutive games since 1946.
"You can't make any deal in order not to lose games. That only ultimately leads to more financial damage," Granik said.
The union's strategy is to await the outcome of the arbitration hearing to see if it can gain some leverage before talks resume. If Feerick rules in the players' favor, the owners could become liable for some $800 million in salaries due in the upcoming season. And since owners won't want to pay players who aren't playing, they would have more reason to come back to the bargaining table with a better offer.
"We want to negotiate and establish a system that we can both live with, but we just will not agree to a hard (salary) cap," union director Billy Hunter said. "If we can address the owners' concerns and interests and give them some of the relief they're looking for -- although we don't really think it's justified -- in an effort to demonstrate good faith and move the process along, we'll consider it."
"But they can't come at us with a hard cap," Hunter said. "If they come with a hard cap, we're not going to make any progress."
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