On the day before the NBA season was supposed to begin, union director Billy Hunter said it might be 1999 before it actually does.
"My gut tells me that in January we could be playing. I would anticipate the season would start around the first part of January," Hunter said Monday after representatives of the owners and players met for about 21/2 hours at a Manhattan law office.
No more talks are scheduled until Wednesday, and Hunter said the sides have retreated from an earlier plan to have full negotiating teams present.
Hunter's pessimistic outlook was in response, he said, to a growing misperception that a deal could be imminent.
"It has been reported that there's strong possibility an agreement can be reached this week," Hunter said. "I don't know where that information came from, but I can indicate that I don't see any possibility at all of reaching an agreement this week and I can't say how soon it will be. I want to get that message out there."
NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik responded: "We agree with Mr. Hunter that we are not close."
If Hunter's gut feeling is correct and the lockout lasts at least another month, it will cost the players about $400 million in lost salaries.
Owners, too, are losing money, and Hunter expects pressure to come from the television networks, sponsors and some of the owners to cut their losses and get a deal done before it's too late to have a viable regular season.
Commissioner David Stern and Granik have indicated that anything less than a 50-game season was unacceptable. The first month of the season has already been canceled, leaving each team with about 68 games.
"In Januay, it becomes much more
urgent. We're either going to play, or something extreme is going to happen one way or another," Hunter said. "I'm sure some players are hurting, but pain, pressure and anxiety is on other side, too. At the boiling point, when people realize basketball is going to take a hit, then rationality will set in and we'll have a deal."
Dikembe Mutombo (right), Patrick Ewing and the union will not begin full talks until Wednesday. (AP)
Last week, both sides agreed on a loose framework for a new labor pact that included a number of years under a "luxury tax" and an equal number of years under an "escrow tax" -- if the luxury tax failed to curtail the percentage of basketball-related income devoted to player salaries.
The biggest sticking point is what the percentage should be after the system has been in place for a few years. The players are asking for 60 percent of revenues; the owners are offering 50.
"Nothing has changed from last week," Granik said. "The union agreed that the NBA had the right to reopen the (old) contract if player compensation reached 52 percent. The percentage we paid last year soared to 57 percent, and the players' best offer so far is that they be paid 60 percent."
Hunter also said the sides discovered Monday they were fundamentally at odds over how the framework would work, differences that were not apparent last week when they spent four days and about 24 hours negotiating.
"We obviously think we're much further apart than we were a week ago on economic issues," Hunter said. "My optimism last Tuesday was over the fact that we were meeting, and I felt the owners and the league were somewhat anxious. But for whatever reason, they've become a little more entrenched and we may have taken a step back today."
Some people close to the union said Hunter received numerous calls during the weekend from players and agents wondering if an agreement was imminent.
The union thinks that perception was caused by people in the league office quietly putting out the word that a deal could be finalized in time to allow for a Dec. 1 start to the season.
"The story started floating Friday, and all of the sudden word is out that a deal is imminent. I thought it would be prudent on our part to respond," Hunter said. "We've never been at all deluded by the belief or suspicion that there was going to be an immediate agreement. We've always told our players to be there for the long haul."
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