When David Stern and Billy Hunter sit down across from each other in a hotel conference room, it will be their last opportunity to save the league's uninterrupted string of 35,001 games over 51 seasons.
Judging from the pessimism so abundant on both sides, their chances of keeping the NBA's perfect record intact are roughly equal to those of Michael Jordan air-balling a title-clinching jumper -- slim and none.
The last chance to save a full, 82-game season comes Tuesday when owners, led by commissioner Stern, and players, led by union chief Hunter, meet for collective bargaining talks at a Manhattan hotel.
Barring a quick settlement, the league will cancel games for the first time in its history. The regular season is scheduled to begin Nov. 3.
"I think it's a real shame," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said of the perfect record. "The people it means the most to, probably, are those of us in the league office. David's been at this for 30-some years, and I've been at it for more than 20, so that's something we have taken a lot of personal pride in.
"We feel pretty bad about it, but at some point you have to accept that there are other issues that are more important. And the overall financial health of the league has to take precedence over that record that we hadn't missed a game," Granik said.
The sides have met for only two formal bargaining sessions since the lockout began July 1, and their meeting last Thursday was more of a question-and-answer parley than a bargaining meeting.
About 15 players met at the union's offices Monday to discuss the specifics of a counterproposal. When it is presented Tuesday, the owners will not be expected to respond positively unless the players have accepted the demand to somehow place a definitive limit on the amount of league revenues that will be devoted to player salaries.
| NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik and commissioner David Stern likely will announce the cancellation of regular-season games unless a labor agreement is reached Tuesday. (AP) |
Otherwise, no deal.
"Certainly this is the least successful (negotiation)," Granik said. "In terms of reaching a deal, this is the worst we've ever had. We've never gotten to this point without being able to make a deal."
The NBA is a $2 billion-a-year business, and it is incomprehensible to most fans that the owners and players haven't been able to come up with a way to divvy the pie.
Like the disastrous baseball strike of 1994, the less-destructive hockey lockout of 1994-95 and the NFL strike of 1987, the combatants in the NBA lockout stand to do more harm to their sport than good.
The NBA has enjoyed leaps in prosperity that would have been unimaginable less than two decades ago in Magic Johnson's and Larry Bird's rookie season when the finals were televised on a tape-delayed basis.
Since then, the league has enjoyed a renaissance and gained a worldwide appeal that has shown no sign of ebbing -- even with the current possibility that Jordan will retire from the six-time champion Chicago Bulls.
As the game's popularity has soared, so, too, have the revenues. Franchises that were worth only a few million dollars in the 1980s have become worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and player contracts that were formerly valued in the hundreds of thousands have grown to be worth more than $100 million for the most promising young players.
It is that rapid escalation, however, that has made the stakes so high and has so hardened the resolve of the owners who believe their operating profits should be larger.
When they negotiated the last collective bargaining agreement in 1995, the owners agreed to pay the players between 48 percent and 51.8 percent of revenues. If the percentage went higher -- and owners claim it reached 57 percent last season - the owners had the right to toss out the old deal and seek a new one, which they have done.
The league claims almost half of its 29 teams lost money last season. The only answer, owners claim, is to put a limit on payroll costs.
They have prepared diligently to fight this battle, writing their new $2.6 billion television contract to include the provision that each team will be paid about $23 million even if the games do not start on time.
Players, the majority of whom won't miss a paycheck until Nov. 15, are banned from NBA facilities until the impasse is settled.
It's anybody's best guess as to when that day might arrive.
"The players have to participate in some deal that lowers the percentage of revenues being paid to salaries," said Granik, the owners' chief negotiator. "But they don't see that as their responsibility at all."
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