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Is Stern Keeping Secrets?

Are NBA owners sitting on a new proposal while the season wastes away?

The union says yes; the owners say no.

"(Commissioner David Stern) has indicated that he does have another proposal. When he puts it out there remains to be seen," union director Billy Hunter said Wednesday after his negotiating committee and several team player representatives met for about 5 1/2 hours to discuss the lockout.

We have no idea what he's talking about," deputy commissioner Russ Granik said in response.

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The sides in the 134-day-old lockout are barely talking to each other, yet they're still bickering.

Their dispute over the phantom proposal is the latest development in the costliest and most damaging labor dispute in NBA history.

"I think the commissioner wants to wait and see what effect, if any, the efforts of the general managers, owners and coaches have on our players before the owners are prepared to come back to the table," Hunter said. "I think what (Stern) wants to do is sweat our players a little more and see whether there's any inclination on our part to want to submit."

There have been no discussions since talks broke off last Friday, and the season cannot begin until mid-December at the earliest.


Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan and other Dream Teamers might play an exhibition game in early December. (AP)
another three weeks go by without an agreement, the season probably won't start until 1999.

"We're prepared to gut the season," Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin told the New York Times. "We went into this knowing that if we can't make a fair deal, the season would be gone."

No new negotiations are scheduled, although Hunter said he would call Stern Wednesday night or Thursday to gauge whether the sides want to sit at the negotiating table again.

Hunter also revealed that Michael Jordan's next basketball could be played during the first weekend of December in an exhibition game that would be held in Las Vegas to raise funds for the union.

"Whether or not (Jordan) will play won't be known until the last moment. If he doesn't play, he'll coach. But he'll be physically present," Hunter said

Agents David Falk, ArnTellem and Eric Fleisher are trying to organize the game, which Hunter said might be a matchup between two of the three Dream Teams that competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics and the 1994 World Championships.

But it would be impossible to put the original Dream Team back together since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird are now part of management -- Johnson as a part owner of the Lakers and Bird as the coach of the Indiana Pacers. Also, Christian Laettner ruptured his Achilles' tendon last summer and could not play, and Clyde Drexler will be busy coaching the University of Houston basketball team.

Hunter said the Showtime cable network has expressed interest in televising the game. A spokeswoman for Showtime had no comment.

During Wednesday's meeting, discussions focused mainly on where the sides stand and how to reach a compromise.

The sides already have discussed the framework for a deal in which a "luxury tax" might be imposed for two or three years on owners who sign players to lucrative contracts. After that, an "escrow tax" could be withheld from players' paychecks to ensure the percentage of revenues devoted to salaries drops to an agreed-upon level.

Rather than having a luxury tax, owners want a maximum salary of about $8 million to $12 million. The luxury tax proposed by the players could have the same effect, limiting annual salaries to no more than $15 million without a penalty being imposed.

Under the union's proposal, if the luxury tax failed to retard salary growth, most players would have 10 percent of their salary withheld from their paychecks. That money would be returned to the owners if the targeted percentage was exceeded, but the owners are asking that the deduction not be limited to 10 percent.

The sides also are far apart on what percentage of revenues devoted to salaries would trigger the imposition of the escrow plan. The owners want the plan to go into effect if the percentge is not reduced from its current 57 percent to 50 percent. The players don't want the escrow system to go into effect unless the percentage exceeds 60 percent.

"Our position is we're constantly asked to do their work for them and limit their spending for them. And we've agreed to that on a very large basis," said Danny Schayes of the Orlando Magic. "But at some point they have to assume that responsibility for their own businesses. You can only level the playing field so much."

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