- Associated Press - Thursday, June 30, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Union chief Billy Hunter said Thursday “it’s obvious the lockout will happen tonight” after players and owners failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, potentially putting the 2011-12 season in jeopardy.

Despite a three-hour meeting Thursday and a final proposal from the players _ which NBA leaders said would have raised average player salaries to $7 million in the sixth year of the deal _ the sides could not close the enormous gulf between their positions.

“The problem is that there’s such a gap in terms of the numbers, where they are and where we are, and we just can’t find any way to bridge that gap,” Hunter said.

The CBA expires at midnight, after which all league business is officially on hold, starting with the free agency period that would have opened Friday.

Commissioner David Stern said “with some sadness” he would recommend later Thursday to the labor relations committee that the first lockout since the 1998-99 season be imposed. Teams will be prohibited from having any contact with their players, who can’t come to team facilities.

Once the NBA takes that action, two of four major professional sports in the United States will be locked out. The NFL locked out its players in March, and the two sides have been in discussions this week, trying to work toward a new deal.

“Needless to say we’re disappointed that this is where we find ourselves,” Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said.

The last lockout reduced the 1998-99 season to just a 50-game schedule, the only time the NBA missed games for a work stoppage. Hunter said it’s too early to be concerned about that.

“I hope it doesn’t come down to that,” he said. “Obviously, the clock is now running with regard to whether or not there will or will be a loss of games, and so I’m hoping that over the next month or so that there will be sort of a softening on their side and maybe we have to soften our position as well.”

Despite frequent meetings this month, the sides just didn’t make much progress.

Owners want to reduce the players’ guarantee of 57 percent of basketball revenue and weren’t interested in the players’ offer to drop it to 54.3 percent _ though players said that would have cut their salaries by $500 million over five years.

They sparred over the league’s characterization of its “flex” salary cap proposal _ players considered it a hard cap, which they oppose _ and any chance of a last-minute deal was quickly lost Thursday when league officials said the union’s move was in the wrong direction financially.

“I don’t think we’re closer; in fact it worries me that we’re not closer. We have a huge philosophical divide,” Stern said.

The NBA’s summer league in Las Vegas already has been canceled, preseason games in Europe were never scheduled, and players might have to decide if they want to risk playing in this summer’s Olympic qualifying tournaments without the NBA’s help in securing insurance in case of injury.

The expected lockout comes exactly one year after one of the NBA’s most anticipated days in recent years, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the celebrated class of 2010 became free agents.

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