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NBA: Let The Games Begin!

The NBA rolled the dice and it came up sixes. Six hours, six days and at 6 a.m. on Jan. 6, the lockout is over.

NBA commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter finally struck an agreement one day before Stern threatened to cancel the season.

The players approved it 179-5 in a ratification vote at the union's law office Wednesday afternoon, a union spokesman said. The NBA Board of Governors unamimously voted to ratify the agreement at a meeting Thursday.

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A source says a 52-game season will begin on Feb. 2. New Jersey Nets forward Jayson Williams said training camp would begin Jan. 18.

The union agreed to accept 55 percent of revenues in the fourth, fifth and sixth years of the agreement, a source close to the talks said. The NBA has an option for a seventh year, and the players would get 57 percent if it is exercised.

Each side made significant compromises to close the deal, but the owners clearly walked away with a much better agreement than the old one. The players, for their part, came away with their dignity intact and with more money for the non-superstars.

"Did we blink? I guess we both blinked," Hunter said.

Said Stern: "I will say that I am elated that we will be playing basketball this season."

"Oh, I'm so relieved it's unbelievable," Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl said. "It's like I let a balloon out of my stomach. The knots are already loosening up in my neck. I get to do what I love to do."

In the first three years, there is no limit on the percentage of revenues players can receive.

Among the other compromises:

  • The union agreed to a $14 million maximum salary for players with 10 years' experience. Players with one to six yearsexperience can get a maximum of $9 million, and players with six to nine years' experience can get $11 million.
  • The union agreed to a three-year rookie scale with teams holding an option for the fourth year and the right of first refusal in the fifth year. First-round draft picks will be grouped into three categories by where they were selected -- 1-9, 10-19 and 20-29 -- with the highest picks eligible for higher percentage increases in their salaries from year to year.
  • The league accepted the union's proposal for an "average" salary exception and "median" salary exception, with both being phased during the next three years. As a result, every team will have the right to sign two additional players each season, even if they are over the salary cap.
  • The annual allowable salary increases will be 12 percent for players with so-called Larry Bird rights -- those free agents re-signed by a team without regard to the salary cap -- and 10 percent for others.
  • Changes to free agency timing rules will be phased in, with free agents counting 200, 250 or 300 percent against their old team's salary cap until that team re-signs them or renounces their rights.
  • The league agreed to higher minimum salaries than it had been offering, although the exact amounts weren't immediately known.

The Board of Governors will vote on the agreement Thursday, and the league said it would not comment until then. The lockout will not officially be lifted until terms of the agreement are formally drawn up -- a process that could take 10 days.

Stern, however, spoke to the almost 200 players who had flown in to vote on the owners' latest proposal -- a vote that never came.

"He told us Billy was a tough guy, but a good guy, and how glad he was to get it over with and to start playing again," Aaron Williams of the Seattle SuperSonics said.

Once the deal is finalized and the lockout is lifted, it will unleash a three- to four-week frenzy of activity with teams scrambling to fill rosters, make trades and sign some of the 200 free agents on the market while also holding abbreviated training camps.

Among the free agents are Michael Jordan, who may retire, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Antonio McDyess, Rod Strickland and Damon Stoudamire.

"Obviously, it will be very busy," said agent Mark Bartelstein. "We've got a lot of free agents, so we've got to find them homes and teams. Get other guys into camps. Get up and rolling. I'm sure I'll probably talk to a lot of teams today."

The lockout began July 1, just two months after the NBA triggered the option to end the agreement signed in the summer of 1995. Since then, $500 million in salaries, three months of the season and the 1999 NBA All-Star game in Philadelphia on Feb. 14 have been lost.

"That was the goal all along," the source said. "As long as we could ge 50 games in, everybody felt the season could be salvaged. We've lost a lot of money, but not as much as what losing the entire season could have cost us."

Yes, the impasse between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association has ended, if only because it was obvious the NBPA was ready to ignore the 19-person negotiating committee and approve the final proposal from the NBA Wednesday.

"I just don't believe when it comes down to it, every player is going to be thinking about unity," one NBA veteran told SportsLine. "For players like myself, this could be our last chance for a contract. To whose benefit is it to sit out any longer? It's all well and good to be thinking about the future players in this league, but we all knew the huge contracts were going to have to end some time."

"At some point in time, we all have to say, when is enough, enough? It was our fault for the top end players getting out of hand and that's where the middle class went. We have to be honest with ourselves."

Terry Cummings, in New York for the players' vote, was relieved it is finally over.

"It's about time," Cummings said. "People finally got together and got overly concerned. It should have happened months ago."

Cummings also gave a hint about what might have happened at the union vote that was scheduled for 1 p.m. today.

"A lot of the players didn't like what was going on," Cummings said. "As far as the issues go, we were never that far apart. It was ego and pride" that kept the lockout going.

From the beginning, it was apparent what we really were watching was a power struggle between Stern and Hunter. There is no doubt Hunter was hired because of his background and strong resolve as an attorney to stand up to Stern after the problems both Simon Guordine and Charles Grantham had before him.

"He was hired to kick my (butt)," Stern said over the summer. "We all know that."

So Stern had made sure that hasn't happened. Stern made it clear they would cancel the 1998-99 NBA season on Thursday if the players don't vote to accept the latest proposal from the owners. What has become apparent since the 1995 agreement was signed is simply this -- the top level players got too strong through huge contracts, and not the coaches, nor the owners had control anymore.

What topped it off was when Latrell Sprewell's contract termination after attacking his coach P.J. Carlesimo was overturned. Stern was not going to stand for it anymore.

"My job as commissioner is to sometimes ignore the wishes of both sides," Stern said Monday during a national teleconference. He went on from there to describe how the negotiations have not moved along to where they want it to be. The players have conceded far more than the owners have, since the players have been the ones who have given back everything that was theirs since unequivocal free agency began in 1988.

Stil, the owners have made concessions since their original offer. Just not as many as the players. They will not allow the percentage of shared revenue to reach where it is now after the third year, and that will include an escrow of 10 percent of the salary that must be paid in return ... presumably to small market teams. The players wanted a maximum salary of $15 million, and the owners wanted it at $12.5.

But the numbers aren't the point of this matter. It's all about who's running the show and there is no doubt David Stern has got his league back. But in what form, we won't know until the next two days have passed.

Hunter said last week he believed 80-85 percent of the league would stick with the 19-man negotiating committee's recommendation to vote down the latest proposal.

Nobody believed that figure. Hunter must have gotten a little nauseous when he actually saw that in print. Certainly a lot of players didn't believe it, and that is very likely at the core of why Hunter finally conceded early Wednesday morning.

Just those sort of notions was what Stern is counting on. Furthermore, there's no way Hunter expected 400-plus players to show up in New York Wednesday to vote. With a snowstorm rolling full blast across the Midwest and to the Northeast, it would have been limited attendance at best.

Nick Anderson of the Orlando Magic said he won't hold a grudge against Stern. But will other players?

"They were stubborn on both ends." Anderson said. "I can't say I wasn't bitter at him, but he has a job to do too. He has to do what the owners tell him."

Stern harbors no ill feelings for the players, nor Hunter. He does feel that way about the upper crust agents David Falk, Arn Tellem and Bill Strickland, who have battled feverishly to keep the Larry Bird exception in order so top-end salaries would remain unlimited.

The same goes for chief counsel Jeffrey Kessler, who spearheaded the decertification of the players in the NFL. More important, Kessler gets under the skin of both Stern and everybody else on the NBA's negotiating committee. They can't forget he forged the decertification of the NFL Players Association and would undoubtedly have done the same here if the season had been canceled.

"I want to give them the benefit of the doubt," Stern said Monday. "They're earnest people. They seem serious and yet, the proposal that they delivered, which I think was probably drafted by their negotiating lawyers, did not match their mood. We sat down together and we realized that the clock was running."

The alarm sounded and the players got out of bed. Not only did they accept the owners' proposal, but they gave back ownership of the league.

As union members, that's a bad thing.

As athletes with finite careers, there was little choice here.

The prospect of losing the NBA as we have known it was a chance Stern was going to take. Wisely, the players agreed not to call his bluff.

© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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