- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

NEW YORK — Labor talks between the NBA and the players union broke off yesterday, increasing the chance of a lockout starting in the offseason.

In a statement, the NBA accused the union of backtracking on several items that the sides had agreed upon. The collective bargaining agreement expires June30.

“Since we are at a loss as to how we can possibly reach a new deal that is in any way consistent with the principal terms that we have been discussing for many months, there are no further meetings scheduled at this time,” deputy commissioner Russ Granik said.

The union did not immediately respond.

If no new agreement is reached, a lockout could begin as early as July1 — three days after the draft.

The sides had been publicly optimistic over the prospects for reaching a new deal until last Friday, when commissioner David Stern downgraded his outlook to “hopeful.” That came just hours after two union attorneys gave a verbal outline of the union’s new offer and, according to the league, changed its position on several key issues.

“They’ve taken major steps backward on all the key elements,” Granik said in a telephone interview. “We still have more than six weeks until July1, so I don’t want to predict what will or won’t happen, but based on way things have gone here it’s hard to see where an agreement will be reached any time soon.”

A lockout beginning July1 would force the cancelation of summer leagues and offseason conditioning programs at team facilities. Training camps are scheduled to open in early October.

The league and union went through an acrimonious seven-month lockout in 1998 and 1999 before agreeing to the current seven-year agreement.

With very few exceptions, the same attorneys that negotiated the old agreement are working on the new one.

In its statement, the league indicated a belief that player agents had pressured union director Billy Hunter to back off some of the concessions he had agreed to in previous negotiating sessions since mid-February.

“At the conclusion of a bargaining session on Sunday, April17, we thought we were very close to a deal, with only a few items remaining to be compromised,” Granik said. “On April19, a day after the players association met with a group of player agents, we were informed that the players association could no longer agree to a previously committed five-year rule on length of contracts.

“Then, last week, after promising a written proposal to form the basis of a new agreement, the union instead advised us orally that it needed to backtrack on several other essential terms that had already been resolved.”

The league claims the union changed its position on the length of long-term contracts (current rules allow a maximum length of seven years), the size of annual raises in long-term contracts (current rules limit those increases to 12.5 percent annually for players who re-sign with their teams; 10 percent for players changing teams as free agents), and changes to the escrow and luxury tax systems designed to limit salary growth and penalize the highest-spending teams.

Granik also told the AP that the union had changed its stance on a proposed change to the age limit. He did not give specifics.

Stern is seeking to have the minimum age for playing in the NBA raised to 20 (current rules mandate a U.S. player’s high school class must have graduated before he can become draft eligible, while foreign-born players must turn 18 before the draft). Hunter has said he is philosophically opposed to raising the minimum age, though he said he’d agree to a change if the league offered something substantial in return.

The league said it had offered to increase each team’s salary cap by raising the percentage upon which that calculation is based. Currently, the cap is computed by taking 48 percent of leaguewide revenues and dividing that figure by the number of teams, 30.

Granik said the league had offered to raise that percentage to 51.

Hunter, in Washington to testify before a congressional committee investigating steroid use in professional sports, could not immediately be reached.

The first sign that talks might be breaking down came when the league canceled plans for a bargaining session between a large group of owners and players that was to have taken place Tuesday. Granik said yesterday’s statement was issued to help explain the cancelation of that session.

“We felt we had to tell people what was really happening. It’s not like it serves a beneficial purpose,” Granik said. “I would prefer we not have to air this, but people were asking reasonable questions and we owed them a responsible answer.”

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